Here’s the thing about Lizzie: she didn’t have a lot of imagination, but she had a fair amount of sense as far as self-preservation went. So she didn’t wonder excessively about where she was heading, or worry about what her widowed mother would do without her. It went more like this: leaving… leaving… leaving… leaving in time with the horse’s hooves.
The words, the truth of the change shook her, thundered through her body, and got mixed in with Bluebeard’s smell of man and spiced cologne.
They rode all day— all that was left of it. Had he ridden from his estate that morning just on this errand? She didn’t ask, though she could have turned her head and whispered it right into his strange, terrible, thrilling beard.
It tickled her ear. It was thick and coarse. After some time she distinguished that he had oiled it, probably to smooth it and bring out the wave.
It was dusk when they reached the house. Not that Lizzie called it a ‘house.’ It was far too enormous for that. She had never been anywhere, save the county May Day festival when she was eleven, and had never seen a building taller than two levels. This was turreted and crimped like crinoline, flounced like a fancy woman’s dress. The red tiles on the roofs overlapped like fish scales. The stone of the walls shone silver in the slanting evening light. The windows glinted peach-gold.
Bluebeard dismounted with a swing of his leg, then reached up to grab her down, but Lizzie had already begun to slide herself off the horse, so instead of getting hold of her hips he suddenly held his new wife in a close embrace.
Lizzie stared at his face and blinked hard. His eyes were so dark they seemed tinged with violet. His breath smelled of meat and peppermint, though they hadn’t stopped to eat.
He for his part studied her, though only for a moment, and perhaps ‘studied’ is too strong a word. But he looked at her full on, their heads level, ribs interlocking, before loosening his hold so she slid the rest of the way down and at last touched the ground once more.
He turned on his boot and walked across the courtyard toward the house.
“Is there no one to water the horse?” The words fell out of Lizzie’s mouth, passing the gate of her mind. Of course she knew she ought not speak first, ought not suggest anything— because of her age, her sex, her status as wife. But they had ridden for hours and horses needed tending, everyone knew that.
Bluebeard turned. “The horse will look after itself. Everything does in my house.”
Those were the first words her husband spoke to her, words she would ponder over later in her short attempt to find romance or meaning.
“Come.” She came.
Tapers were lit in brackets. Hadn’t the house been dark, only reflecting the last light of day? Lizzie felt a buzzing in her head, as if a sleepy fly was trying to find its way out.
They walked beneath a trellis, black iron that crowned the door. The door swung open. Bluebeard walked through, but Lizzie hesitated. He looked at her.
“It’s custom where I come from that the bride and groom walk through together the first time.”
His expression didn’t change. He stood on the other side of the threshold. Lizzie stood on the front step. “It is not my custom, and you are no longer from anywhere but here.” He turned and disappeared into the dark front hall.
Lizzie raised her eyebrows but said nothing, and stepped through. The door swung shut behind her and she turned to see who the butler or maidservant might be. But there was no one there. ‘This house sees to itself’ she thought.
They ate in a dining room so expansive it seemed her whole crofter’s village, potato field and all could have fit snugly within. Lizzie could hardly say they dined together; the table was that long and they sat at either end. She might have tried sitting to one side nearer to him, she did like company and had lived elbow to elbow in her little village, but there were only the two chairs and plates of steaming food already set out and waiting.
She sat down and stared in confused amazement at the array of silverware. She picked up a middle-sized fork and flicked it with her fingernail. It gave off a thin, high ting. The sound hung in the air but gave her no clue which piece of cutlery she was expected to use. If Bluebeard heard it he gave no indication. He seized the pointed knife and stabbed his meat, spearing it and eating as bandit might, tearing chunks of meat off with his teeth.
So, that’s how it is in this grand house, thought Lizzie. She picked up her meat— a cut of beef blackened on the outside but oozing red within— with her fingers and ate. The potatoes were small and hot and had to be tossed from hand to hand. The bread was fresh and chewy and still warm and steamy enough to turn the slathering of butter from white to liquid gold.
All in all, she ate well. She drank well, too: a spicy wine the color of [currants]. She felt full and sleepy— in fact, she was surprised to think she must have dozed off, for beside her plate on its own gold-and-blue platter was a small and sodden rum cake which she had not seen arrive.
A chair scraped. She looked up. The room was empty. She alone sat at the enormous table. If she hadn’t been so full and so tired after the long ride, and if she had been a more worrying type, she would have felt afraid. Where was Bluebeard? What was expected of her?
She brushed these thoughts away, two more flies to buzz against the windows, and tucked into her rum cake, pouring it white with the small pitcher of cream. As things stood, being a wife was, so far, not a burden.
She swallowed the last of her wine and wiped her hands. “Where to now, Lizzie?” she said under her breath. She was warm and full, and it was well after dark. Her body was made for the fields and it was telling her it was time for bed. “But where?”
They had entered the dining room from the door to her right, and so she turned left and looked down the hallway. Candles were lighted and made small pools of light in the darkness. They went on and on. “How enormous,” was all she said. Then she set about to looking.
She hadn’t intended to go up to the other floors; surely there would be a bed on the ground floor; but when a stairway presented itself her feet turned of their own accord. They didn’t stop when she reached the landing for the second floor, and Lizzie had the thought that perhaps this was what too much wine did to a person, lost them full control over where their legs took them. But the climb felt good, the strain on muscles that had sat long cramped in the saddle. So she kept going up.
It occurred to her after the fourth landing that this was a rather small staircase for such a grand house, and it was likely a servants’ stair. “Not that we’ve seen a soul here,” she said to herself. (It was her habit since childhood to speak to herself in plural. It could have been that when she was very young she had had a sister, barely a year older than she, and so all of life had consisted of “we” rather than “I.”)
She looked upward. The stairway had zigzagged back and forth but turned now into a spiral stair. “Must be a tower then, Lizzie. Let’s go check— we’ve come this far already.”
Up they went, Lizzie and Herself. When the last step came it surprised her and she stumbled up against the wooden door at the top. As anyone would have done, she reached for the knob and —
“Wife?” The call came from floors and floors below. It carried with its own kind of thunder. Lizzie stood frozen, movement forgotten, listening.
“Wife?” The voice was louder now, perhaps not so far away.
Lizzie shook herself. The black knob sang to her, called to her. “Later,” she said. “Another time. I live her now.” Then, experimentally, “this is my house.”
She jumped and scurried down the steps, thundering in a daze level by level until Oof! She knocked the wind out of herself and staggered backwards. A hand shot out and gripped her wrist.
“Where have you been, Wife?” asked Bluebeard. His eyes flashed.
But the helpful thing about a large meal and a glass of wine and then the vigorous exercise of going up and down five floors very quickly in addition to being tired is that you don’t feel shocked by things, don’t read into situations. At least, Lizzie didn’t, and she answered him quickly and without a thought.
“Searching for a place to sleep, as anyone who’d traveled so far might. You did leave me during dinner without a word of instruction.” She looked at him, considering, and we must assume the wine, still running its course in her tired system, prompted her to continue so boldly and inappropriately: “And why do you call me ‘wife?’ I have a name, it’s—“
Bluebeard released her wrist and held up his hand. “I have not time to remember names. ‘Wife’ will suffice.”
Lizzie nearly gaped, but the wine wore off and she dropped a quick curtsy. “As you wish, my lord.” Then, “And what shall I call you? Husband?” (She was cheeky).
The air chilled suddenly and her heart fluttered in her chest, caught like a moth against glass, a part of her thought. She dipped down again and this time dropped her eyes, “forgive me, my lord.”
It was silent in the hall, silent in that massive house that should have been teeming with the behind-the-scenes sounds of polishing and washing and sweeping and such.
“Come. It is time we were to bed.”
He turned and walked away from her. She hesitated just a moment. Then she straightened her shoulders and she went.
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