Hell in a Handbag

Reading Time: 4 minutes
(Image created by Geordie Morse using Firefly.)

If you’re reading this, you’ve finally come to possess the handbag. You know the one. Black, full grain leather, simple lines and no logos, with enough room for your wallet, smartphone, a tube of lipstick and a bag of trail mix. I’m a sensible woman, you see.

You could say it’s an heirloom of sorts, though it doesn’t look a day past the 1996 fall collection. This handbag has been passed down to the women of our family for generations, from female to female, because we only ever have daughters. (You will, too. You’ll see.) For how long, I’m not really sure, though the earliest account is from our foremother, Rhoda. You know her better as Red Riding Hood. That’s right, she was a real person. Back then, it was still a handbasket, but more on that later.

What really happened to Rhoda was this: whenever she put on her red cloak, it was a signal to her lover, the Wolf, to meet at her departed grandmother’s old cottage. Not an actual wolf, but a huntsman, he was known for wearing a wolfskin mantle draped across his broad shoulders. He had a reputation for being a woman-eater, pursuing both beasts and young women wherever he prowled.

When Rhoda’s husband, the woodcutter, discovered the affair, he took his axe and went to murder them both. Entering the cottage, he caught them in the act: she in only her red cloak and her lover lying sweaty on a wolfskin hide. The woodcutter raised his axe, and in a panic, Rhoda lunged for the basket and opened the lid, not really sure what she had in mind to do. That’s when it happened.

You know the feeling of a hurricane, when the air pressure drops, the wind swirls, and gales howl like wailing banshees, and all you can do is pray for it to pass? That’s the only way I can describe it, except it’s worse than that, like the sensation is devouring your entire being. When the moment passed, Rhoda uncovered her ears and slammed the lid shut, but it was too late; both the woodcutter and the huntsman had vanished.

To be certain, whatever you put inside the handbag is always available: when Rhoda looked inside, the post-coital snack she packed was still there. But when the daughters of our family call upon the handbag in the face of danger, well, something happens. No one’s quite sure what.

When I started dating, that’s when my mom gave me the handbag. It was pillbox-style back then. She told me that if anyone tried any funny business, I shouldn’t hesitate to use it on them. I opened the clasp, thinking she put a can of mace inside, but it was empty. My mother curled her lips and said, Darling, this is far beyond pepper spray. Without further explanation, she said that if I was ever in danger, all I had to do was close my eyes and open the handbag.

The first time I followed her advice was when I had a fender bender. That asshole, pardon my French, started screaming that I was at fault, and demanded I pay on the spot. I feared for my life, so I reached for my bag like I was going to get my wallet, only when I opened it . . .

When I described earlier what Rhoda heard and felt, I only assume it was the same stomach-dropping feeling I experienced, but I’m still not sure if it’s real or imagined. The reflex to shut my eyes at the howling was always too great to overcome, so I’ve never actually seen what hell is presumably set loose from the handbag, and anyone who has has never survived to tell the tale.

When the air stilled, I looked up, and there was a pile of crimson goo where the driver had been standing, mere inches from me. In shock, my insides roiled and I vomited right on my shoes. I’ve discovered that’s one of the side-effects of using the handbag, so don’t be surprised when you can’t hold down your salad.

In college, whenever a teacher gave me bad grades, I’d just open my purse, and the whole class would get a reprieve to help us through our grief. The handbag even helped me find true love, since your father was the only one who made it past three dates with me: other boys wanted to go Dutch, or tried to sample my goods, but not your dad. Besides, after he understood the handbag’s power, he saw it was pointless to argue with me. We had a very happy marriage.

Then there was Pearl, the neighbor whose St. Bernard left boulders on our lawn. Ironically, she stopped by while walking her dog to whine about the length of our grass. I opened my purse to feign taking a call, and next thing I know, both owner and dog were gone. But I still had to clean up after their mess.

Hoping I was misdiagnosed, I almost used the handbag on the oncologist, but she was right—there’s a death sentence growing inside me. I suppose I always knew it would end this way, since that’s the fate of all women in our line, I just didn’t think it would come for me so soon. What I’m trying to say is, the bag will be there for you, especially since I can’t be.

I’m feeling tired now, but there’s one more thing I should explain. You should repair the handbag when it starts to look worn, but only one section at a time—the lining, strap, and so forth. It’ll be obvious when it needs mending: the fabric will crackle with green sparks. That’s how the handbasket evolved to the handbag you have now.

Feel free to update the style, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, like Rhoda’s siren-red cloak. After all, no one ever suspects the woman with vomit on her shoes, quietly clutching her simple black handbag. Use it well, my child.


Edited by a Sophie Gorjance.

Katie R. Yen writes fiction and poetry with a dash of magical realism. Her work has appeared in Apparition, Third Coast and elsewhere, and her poem was nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association's 2024 Rhysling Award. For more of her work, visit www.katieyen.com and follow her @katiedowrite.