Skip to main content



The Widows of Eastwick

i. The Coven Reconstituted

Those of us acquainted with their sordid and scandalous story were
not surprised to hear, by way of rumors from the various localities
where the sorceresses had settled after fleeing our venerable town
of Eastwick, Rhode Island, that the husbands whom the three
Godforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves
did not prove durable. Wicked methods make weak products. Satan
counterfeits Creation, yes, but with inferior goods.

Alexandra, the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest
in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first
to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly
liberated into solitude, was to travel—as if the world at
large, by way of flimsy boarding cards and tedious airport delays
and the faint but undeniable risk of flight in a time of rising
fuel costs, airline bankruptcy, suicidal terrorists, and
accumulating metal fatigue, could be compelled to yield the
fruitful aggravation of having a mate. Jim Farlander, the husband
she had conjured for herself from a hollowed pumpkin, a cowboy hat,
and a pinch of Western soil scraped from inside the back fender of
a pickup truck with Colorado plates that she had seen parked,
looking eerily out of place, on Oak Street in the early 1970s, had,
as their marriage settled and hardened, proved difficult to budge
from his ceramics studio and little-frequented pottery shop on a
side street in Taos, New Mexico.

Jim’s idea of a trip had been the hour’s drive south to
Santa Fe; his idea of a holiday was spending a day in one of the
Indian reservations—Navajo, Zuni, Apache, Acoma, Isleta
Pueblo—spying out what the Native American potters were
offering in the reservation souvenir shops, and hoping to pick up
cheap in some dusty Indian Bureau commissary an authentic old
black-and-white geometric Pueblo jar or a red-on-buff Hohokam
storage jar, with its spiral-and-maze pattern, which he could
peddle for a small fortune to a newly endowed museum in one of the
burgeoning resort cities of the Southwest. Jim liked where he was,
and Alexandra liked that in him, since she as his wife was part of
where he was. She liked his lean build (a flat stomach to the day
he died, and never performed a sit-up in his life) and the saddle
smell of his sweat and the scent of clay that clung, like a sepia
aura, to his strong and knowing hands. They had met, on the natural
plane, when she, for some time divorced, had taken a course at the
Rhode Island School of Design, where he had been enlisted as a
fill-in instructor. The four stepchildren—Marcy, Ben, Linda,
Eric—that she saddled him with couldn’t have asked for
a calmer, more soothingly taciturn father-substitute. He was easier
for her children—half out of the nest in any case, Marcy
being all of eighteen—to relate to than their own father,
Oswald Spofford, a small manufacturer of kitchen fixtures from
Norwich, Connecticut. Poor Ozzie had become so earnestly involved
in Little League baseball and company bowling that no one, not even
his children, could take him seriously.

People had taken Jim Farlander seriously, women and children
especially, giving him back his own coiled silence. His level gray
eyes had the glint of a gun from within the shade of his
wide-brimmed hat, its crown darkened where his thumb and fingers
pinched it. When he was at the pottery wheel he tied a faded blue
bandana around his head to keep his long hair—gray but still
streaked with its original sun-bleached auburn and gathered behind
into an eight-inch ponytail—out of the clay, wet and spinning
on the foot-powered wheel. A fall in his teens from a horse had
left him with a limp, and the wheel, which he refused to electrify,
limped with him, while out of the spinning his masculine hands
shaped blobs upward into graceful vessels with slender waists and
swelling bottoms.

It was in bed she first felt his death coming. His erections began
to wilt just as she might have come if he had held on; instead, in
his body upon hers, there was a palpable loosening in the knit of
his sinews. There had been a challenging nicety in the taut way Jim
dressed himself—pointy vanilla-colored boots, butt-hugging
jeans with rivet-bordered pockets, and crisp checked shirts
double-buttoned at the cuff. Once a dandy of his type, he began to
wear the same shirt two and even three days in a row. His jaw
showed shadows of white whisker underneath, from careless shaving
or troubled eyesight. When the ominous blood counts began to arrive
from the hospital, and the shadows in the X-rays were visible to
even her untrained eyes, he greeted the news with stoic lassitude;
Alexandra had to fight to get him out of his crusty work clothes
into something decent. They had joined the legion of elderly
couples who fill hospital waiting rooms, as quiet with nervousness
as parents and children before a recital. She felt the other
couples idly pawing at them with their eyes, trying to guess which
of the two was the sick one, the doomed one; she didn’t want
it to be obvious. She wanted to present Jim as a mother presents a
child going to school for the first time, as a credit to her. They
had lived, these thirty-plus years since she had lived in Eastwick,
by their own rules, up in Taos; there the free spirits of the
Lawrences and Mabel Dodge Luhan still cast a sheltering cachet over
the remnant tribe of artistic wannabes, a hard-drinking, New
Age–superstitious, artsy-craftsy crowd who aimed their
artifacts, in their shop-window displays, more and more plaintively
at scrimping, low-brow tourists rather than the well-heeled local
collectors of Southwestern art. Alexandra for a time had revived
her manufacture of little ceramic
“bubbies”—faceless, footless little female
figures, pleasant to hold in the hand and roughly painted in
clothes worn as close to the skin as tattoos—but Jim, jealous
and dictatorial in his art as true artists are, had been less than
gracious about sharing his kiln. In any case, the miniature women,
their vulval cleft boldly dented into the clay with a toothpick or
nail file held sideways, belonged to an uncomfortable prior period
of her life, when she had practiced, with two other Rhode Island
divorcees, a half-baked suburban variety of witchcraft.

Jim’s illness drove her and Jim down from safe, arty Taos
into the wider society, the valleys of the ailing, a vast herd
moving like stampeded bison toward the killing cliff. The
socialization forced upon her—interviews with doctors, most
of them unsettlingly young; encounters with nurses, demanding
merciful attentions the hospitalized patient was too manly and
depressed to ask for himself; commisera- tion with others in her
condition, soon-to-be widows and widowers she would have shunned on
the street but now, in these antiseptic hallways, embraced with
shared tears—prepared her for travel in the company of

She could not believe it—how totally Jim was gone, his
morning absence as vivid as a rooster’s wake-up crow, his
evening non-appearance a refusal bound, she felt, to be cancelled,
any moment, by the scuffling sound of his boots limping across the
entry hall or the squeak, two rooms away, of his potter’s
wheel. Three months after his death, she signed up for a ten-day
tour of the Canadian Rockies. Her old, married, cosseted self, a
bohemian snob proud of her careless, mannish clothes and
high-desert privacy, would have sneered at the feigned camaraderie
of an organized group tour. She foresaw the daily duty to rise and
gorge on cafeteria-style hotel breakfasts and submit to more
marvels, and the resisted but irresistible naps in the swaying bus
in clammy proximity to an alien body, usually that of another
plucky widow, overweight and remorselessly talkative. Then there
would be the sleepless hours, amid worrisome small noises and
mysterious tiny red lights, in a king-size bed built for a couple.
Hotel pillows were always too stuffed, too full, and lifted her
head too high, so she woke, groggily dumfounded to have slept at
all, with a stiff neck. The pillow next to hers would be undented.
It would dawn on her that she would never be one of a couple

But, born in Colorado, she thought it an amusing idea to follow the
Rockies north into another country, where a dramatic landscape did
not flatter the rapacious vanity of the United States. And Canada,
she discovered, did have its good points: airports not bribed to
install television sets pouring forth an inescapable babble, and
voices whose familiar North American accent was braced by a few
leftover Scots vowels, and a gray imperial gravity of public
architecture. This national identity had been created by the
sensible spirit of business enterprise, linking the provinces like
great beads on an iron railroad line, rather than by any
evangelical preachment of a Manifest Destiny—manifest only to
its Anglo perpetrators—that had hurled the agglutinated
United States westwards and then outwards, across all the oceans,
where its boy soldiers lost limbs and died. The daily death-tolls
from Iraq were worth escaping.

On the other hand, in Canada hotel restaurants still seemed to
think Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole the latest
thing in background music, and the giant cruise ships docked in
Vancouver were headed off to dreary cold Alaska. Canada, its tundra
and icefields and miles of forest pressing its population down
tight against the forty-ninth parallel, had in self-defense
embraced Green-ness, trying to make a pet of it, mining for tourist
dollars the nostalgia and righteousness inherent in its cause.
Bring Back Nature—who could object to that? But for
Alexandra, totem poles and emblematic moose had a basic boringness.
She felt, up here, trapped in an attic of stuffed animals. Nature
had been her ally in witchcraft, but still she distrusted it, as a
conscienceless killer, spendthrift and blind.

After a day in Vancouver, and another in determinedly quaint
Victoria, the tour—forty travellers, none of them young and
eight of them Australian—boarded a sleeper train and were
dragged northwards through the dark. They woke amid mountains
dazzling with the yellow of turning aspens. The tour had reserved a
viewing car for their party, and Alexandra, hesitantly entering,
after a heavy breakfast fetched by lurching waiters in the dining
car, was greeted with hesitant smiles from the already seated
couples. She took one of the few seats left and was conscious of
the vacancy at her side, as if of a monstrous wen throwing her face
off balance.

But, then, she could never have talked Jim into coming on such an
adventure. He hated foreign countries, even the Virgin Islands,
where, a few times early in their marriage, she had persuaded him
to take her, as a break from the long Taos winter and the
ski-season traffic jams along Route 522. They had arrived in St.
Thomas, as it turned out, in the late afternoon, and were caught,
in their rented Volkswagen Beetle, in the evening rush hour, Jim
trying to drive for the first time in his life on the wrong side of
the road. More unfortunately still, they were surrounded by black
drivers who took a racist pleasure in tailgating them and in
rebuking every sign of automotive uncertainty with prolonged,
indignant honking. Though eventually they found the resort, at the
end of a poorly marked road, Jim got sunburned the first day,
having scorned her repeated offer of sunscreen, and then got deadly
sick on some conch salad. Whenever, ever after, he felt bested in
an exchange of accusations, he would remind her, in detail, of that
week that almost--twenty-five years before he really died--killed

Now, in Canada, there was not a road or car in sight, just the
tracks and tunnels ahead as the train bored upward through
mountains splashed with quaking golden leaves. "There's Mount
Robson!" a woman behind Alexandra excitedly told her husband.

An Australian across the aisle, in an attempt at friendliness, said
to Alexandra, "Mount Robson ahead," as if she were deaf as well as

From behind this speaker, another voice--not Australian, less
peppy, with a tinge of the American Southern tinge--explained to
her, everybody around her suddenly solicitous, as if of a defective
in their midst, "The tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies."

"Really? Already?" Alexandra asked, knowing she sounded stupid and
covering herself with "I mean, shouldn't they have saved it for
later in the tour?"

Nobody laughed, perhaps not hearing, or understanding, her little
joke. The train was taking a long curve, and the gleaming
mountain-tip sank from view behind the aspens; the peak had been
oddly regular, like a pyramid in a set of child's blocks, but
white. "How high is it?" she asked aloud, determined to combat her
sense of non-existence.

Again, she had struck a silencing note. "Nearly four thousand
meters," an Australian voice volunteered.

She had trouble translating out of the metric system, and,
borrowing a bit of her late husband's xenophobia, refused to try.
The slightly Southern voice understood, and explained, "Nearly
thirteen thousand feet, ma'am."

"My goodness!" Alexandra said, beginning to enjoy her own inanity.
She turned her head to look at her informant. He was lanky, like
Jim, and lean-faced, with deep creases and a mustache just long
enough to droop. His costume, too-- faded tight blue jeans and a
long-sleeved red-checked shirt-- reminded her of Jim.
"Thank you," she said, with more warmth than she had
strictly intended. Perhaps this man with his air of dignified
sorrow was a widower. Or was waiting for some slow-moving wife to
join him here in the viewing car.

"Mount Robson isn't on the tour," the wife behind Alexandra was
saying in her ear, in a penetrating, slightly vexed voice. "It's in
a separate national park from Jasper."

"I really haven't done my homework," Alexandra apologized,
backwards, experiencing a flash of hatred--the old impatient,
witchy, bug-zapping kind of hate she thought she had long outgrown.
Why should this woman, common and shrewish from the sound of her
voice, have a live husband, when she, Alexandra, did not, sitting
here exposed on all sides to these well-meant interventions from

"That's my style, too," a male Australian reassured her.

"Learn as you go. It's my wife reads the books ahead."

"And sees to the tickets and passports, you lazy sod," the wife
said, in the humorous tone of a practiced complaint.

The train, smoother-running than American trains, on Canadian
National Railway tracks welded and upheld by the government,
continued to nose skyward. Mount Robson again appeared above the
trees, its whiteness marked now by black striations--by
snow-striped patches, faceted as if the peak had been carved to a
point like a flint weapon. The hard cobalt of a picture-postcard
sky pressed on these concave contours until the peak disappeared
again behind the waves of yellow leaves. "It says here," the
Australian wife loudly announced, holding a guidebook, "it was
first climbed in 1913, by an Austrian bloke named Kain. K-A-I-N. It
says the Canadian mountain men didn't like it when foreigners were
the first to climb their mountains to the top. Got their ruddy
noses out of joint."

Alexandra sighed and closed her lids, excusing herself from hearing
any more. She wanted to relieve them all of having to pay her any
further attention. Being a big woman, tall and somewhat broad, her
full head of chestnut-brown hair still only half white, had given
her a presence when she was younger but now that she was old and
mateless made her conspicuous, an embarrassment to herself.
Kain, Cain, she thought. The first man to do a truly
wicked deed, worse even than eating the apple of knowledge. Slew
his brother, Abel. Thirty years ago Alexandra had slain a sister
witch: she and Sukie Rougemont and Jane Smart had killed little
Jenny Gabriel, though the death certificate blamed metastasized
malignancy of the ovaries. The curse of it was always there, inside
Alexandra, even when she didn't close her eyes, a sour gnawing. As
negligible as a worm in the earth during the daylight hours, at
night in her dreams the curse grew large and threatened to eat her
alive. Again and again her dreams returned her to that hectic
period, when Darryl Van Horne had taken as wife not one of the
three of them but a younger woman, fair and ivory-skinned, with
innocent, ice-blue eyes--too damned innocent, the older witches had
felt. Had Jenny been less innocent, had she been as corrupt as they
were, they would have accepted her besting them as part of a game
among equals, marrying a man who after all hadn't cared for women,
it turned out, and was not even rich, as they had been led to
believe. They had imagined him, conjured him out of their own

Excerpted from THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK © Copyright 2011 by
John Updike. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All
rights reserved.

The Widows of Eastwick
by by John Updike

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345506979
  • ISBN-13: 9780345506979