When she woke she saw that there were curtains and that they were now drawn and the room was rather dark, though her body told her it was late, perhaps ten o’clock already.
She also saw a dress and stockings and underclothes laid out on the end of the bed, atop a now-neatly turned down coverlet. She blinked and rubbed her hands in her eyes. “This is a strange place, Lizzie girl,” she muttered, “but it life could be worse than all this.” She allowed herself a luxurious stretch beneath the pale gold sheet in honor of not picking potatoes in the heat, and then dressed.
There was no one in the house, no one at all. She walked down long hallways and peered into open doors: brocade-covered arm chairs and dark, carved tables; paintings as tall as a crofter’s cottage, and something that dimly put her in mind of the traveling church organ— which gave her a pang. She was not a religious person; she had no qualms against God, but so far no God had ever revealed itself to her, rather the same way no emperor or duke or princess had ever come knocking at her door. The thought made her stop in her tracks, well, until now. If a lord could show up and carry her away to live in a castle like this— perhaps it was an act of God and He (or She, Lizzie thought experimentally) might exist and have some interest in her tiny existence after all.
She stood there in her stockinged feet contemplating these unusually large thoughts until her stomach groaned at her. “Breakfast, and then shoes.” She had hunted all around the room and under the bed in search of footwear, but found none. It niggled at the back of her brain so that she actually swatted the air as if plagued by a cloud of tiny insects in the potato field. “If there’s dresses and such, and magic breakfasts that serve themselves, and church organs and pictures big as houses, there’ll be shoes. No need to spoil it with a sour mood.”
It took her some time to reach the dining room in which she had supped the night before— she took a wrong turn and wandered halfway down another wing before realizing her mistake— but when she came upon it she was rewarded with a tantalizing smell of breakfast potatoes and biscuits and butter and honey and a thick slab of bacon. (All this she distinguished before lifting the silver dome off of the single plate at the end of the long table. She was adept and practiced in relishing small satisfactions).
When no one arrived to clear her plate (or join her at the table), she pushed back her chair and stood up. She could explore the house… but all her sixteen years she had spent the majority of daylight hours outside working in the fields. More even, than most girls her age, since most of the other children in her family had died from the fever. She had a fuzzy memory of her much-older brothers, twins (Jacobi and Hescher), but they had been conscripted into service as the king’s soldiers— chess pieces, she remembered Hescher saying before he left nearly seven years ago. And so she had not remained indoors mending or washing, but bent her back and hoed in the dirt to support her widowed mother and herself.
Lizzie shook her head and her brown hair frizzed out around her face. Strange time to be thinking of the boys, she thought, but still she hooked her pinkies together, mimicking the way the brothers had linked their little fingers with hers before they left, promising to come back. “… And bring me a horse of my own,” she whispered (she was not naturally such a quiet person, but the house, because of its size or fine furnishings or something else she could not name made her speak quietly). “What I wanted most was my own horse.”
And then it was decided. No, she would not roam the halls discovering her unexpected treasures. She would go outside and find the stables and brush down that big, black horse. Then a through thrilled her: what if a horse, her very own horse, was waiting for her, just as these fine, new clothes had been laid out across her bed?
It took a two heaves, but she managed to push open the double door. She hesitated a moment at the sight of the gravel. Her toes where white as ghosts in her stockings.
She pulled the stockings off and balled them up in the embroidered purse that hung from her belt, and set off across the courtyard, going by dead reckoning toward where she imagined a stable ought to be: downwind and out of sight of the grand entrance.
She rounded the corner and was rewarded: There was a long stone structure with wide open windows. Not one long-faced head peered out, but she was not discouraged. Horses could resting in the cool of a stall or munching oats or even turned out into a pasture. But the stable was the place to start. She hurried forward, skirts gathered in her fists.
And ran smack into a well-tailored doublet of wine red. She would have fallen back and landed hard on her backside, but a black-gloved hand grabbed her wrist and yanked her upright.
“Get back in the house.”
Lizzie’s breath caught. Bluebeard’s face was startlingly white, with nostrils that flared pink like a horse’s. Her stomach rose into her throat and the weight of the biscuits and bacon pressed against the back of her tongue.
“You have no business here. A wife belongs with a house.” He let go of her arm and she stumbled backward a pace. Then she noticed in his other hand he held the black stallion’s reins, and this gave her courage, or at least words.
“I came to brush him— to see about the horses…”
“There are no horses.”
Lizzie looked at him. “No horses? But—“
“There is my horse and that is all that is required.”
“Am I not to have a horse, then?” Lizzie would play these words over again in her mind as she sat in the window seat of the West Tower, watching the dust cloud settle and vanish on the road. How had she had the nerve to say them? We shall assert that Lizzie Borden’s spare upbringing in such an unimportant corner of the kingdom simply gave her insufficient exposure to nobility and power to cow her quickly enough. Animal fear she knew and understood, fear of hunger and illness, yes; but fear of the subtle, the implied— these messages traveled slower. Or perhaps it was just how time ran irregularly in that place. The fact was, she asked, flat out: was she not to have a horse?
“You have no need,” was the man’s answer. “There is nowhere you need go.”
He had swung himself up into the saddle after that, and had she not stepped quickly to one side the horse would have crushed her bare feet as he rode forward and then turned in a tight circle to face her again. He reached into his doublet and withdrew a key on a long, thin gold chain.
“I must leave and attend to business. You may go where you will in the house and open any door you like, save one.” He held out the key; it swung on its chain.
“You are my wife and I give you the run of my house, but you are not to open the door at the top of the North Tower.”
Lizzie nodded. She held out her hand, but he did not release the key.
“Give me your word.”
Lizzie opened her mouth, then shut it. There was a hiss that ran through her, a hushing, a chorus of whispers. Give your word and you have nothing else left.
But he looked at her with those fierce, dark eyes, and his horse lifted its great feet impatiently, and after all, she was only sixteen and very newly married, if, in the absence of a church and an organ and a minister you could call it that.
“Yes, my lord— I mean, no, I won’t.”
“You will not enter the North Tower room.”
“No.” Then, “I will not enter the North Tower room.”
Then the key, black and heavy, fell into her hand and the chain cascaded down her bare arm, and her husband of less than a full journey of the moon and sun was gone in clatter of hooves.
Mrs. Bluebeard was alone. And in that first moment of emptiness, the room began calling.
Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose