Lizzie lingered at the table, though she felt exposed in that large room all by herself. Who knew where Bluebeard went. Was he waiting for her? Was he at this very moment inspecting the North Tower?
“It’ll be your head if he does,” she whispered, then she swatted the thought away. I’ve done nothing wrong. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t, and that’s what counts.
She stood, hesitated, then picked up her plate. She had had to force the food down, but a lifetime of habit wouldn’t allow her to leave a scrap of it. The plate was fine, bone china, though Lizzie didn’t know that. Miniature bluebells swayed along the edges.
“But a plate’s a plate.” So she took it, and, after a pause, Bluebeard’s, into the kitchen.
There wasn’t a trace of food preparation to be seen. The counters gleamed as bright and bare as they had earlier that day. Even the hearth was free of ash, and the heavy kettle looked as if fire had never touched it.
She pumped water at the sink, a luxury indeed not to have to carry a bucket to the well— though she wouldn’t have known where to find it— and filled the pot. The firewood was stacked high, all of it bone dry, and it took only one strike to get a spark and then a rush of licking flame that gobbled up the split edges of the logs. Lizzie tied a dishtowel about her waist and then laughed at the ridiculousness of the combination: makeshift apron and evening dress. But it felt good to do something, and she intended to wash these dishes herself.
She went back to the dining room, passing this time through a servant’s door hidden in the wall paneling, and fetched the goblets. The fork and knife at Bluebeard’s place were still tinged with blood— had he eaten his meat raw?— so she pinched them gingerly with the edge of her apron.
When she returned to the kitchen, the water was bubbling. She poured a copper dipperful into the waiting cold water in the sink, pushed up her sleeves and with a rag (though a week ago she would have called it a lady’s fine handkerchief) started to scrub. But when she touched the frothy white cloth to the knife, she felt the castle shake. She couldn’t have, but she did, and she looked up, alarmed.
Wife! She thought she heard.
Wife! Wife! Wife! This time in other voices, not deep and stone-like like his, but thin, high, tinny as struck crystal.
“I’m washing the dishes,” she called out with a quaver, “what do you want?”
You know what he wants, said the moss green gown.
He wants what a husband wants, said the circlet of gold.
He’ll want more than a husband should take, said the dropped pearl earrings.
Unless you’re careful, careful, careful, said the handfuls of rings.
“Stop!” Lizzie cried. “Be quiet!”
Later, later later.
Soon, soon, soon, said the voices.
She scrubbed the flatware hurriedly, dunked everything into the adjoining sink full of clear water so cold it made her gasp and clench her teeth. Then she set them all upside down on the draining board, turned the kettle over so it hissed and spat and swallowed up the fire, and then dashed out of the kitchen.
She listened, still as could be. Nothing. No bells, no calls for “wife!” And no angry roars coming from the North Tower. A clock chimed— had there always been a clock? She hadn’t heard it before, or hadn’t noticed it. Eleven. That was late.
Suddenly her dress felt heavy and her eyes tired, the kind of tired that threatens to turn into tears, a wet, spilling kind of weariness. She would go to bed. This was a strange place, a new place. Hers. Her new life. But now it was time to sleep.
She retraced her steps back to the second floor. Her skirt hushed like a soft wind following at her heels. She felt pleased with herself, finding her way back in the dark, with only a wall lamp now and then to guide her.
She reached for the door knob and stopped.
The lamp was lit in her room. Our room. Or ‘his’ room. Everything here is his. “Get to bed, Lizzie,” she muttered and pushed open the door.
The sheets rustled in the bed and lamplight revealed a husband-sized lump beneath the blanket.
“You have learned the art of keeping a man waiting. It is not a thing to be done often.”
His voice was like a stone, a boulder. It crushed her, and that frightened her, but at the same time she didn’t mind the crushing.
He pulled at the ribbons. Buttons scattered. There was a lightness as the moss green dress fell off her body, and also a sigh that might have been her own but might just as easily have belonged to someone else.
Lizzie Borden was someone else. She had to be. Lizzie did not know the things her hands and lips knew. Lizzie didn’t groan, didn’t lean in to a stranger, didn’t crane her neck back. Lizzie Borden was just a girl, but this woman, this creature coming in and out of yellow light and navy shadow until all the clocks struck twelve, she had been waiting all along. She had been the one to suddenly rage at her mother about insufficiency of peasant suitors. She had been the one drawn to wishing at the Witch’s Well.
This, she thought as she arched her back, as his hands gripped her hips as if he meant to crush the bones, as whiskers and then tongue and teeth snagged her shoulder, This is what it is to be a wife.
No, no, no, rustled the gown, the torn silk slip, the discarded earrings. Not so!
But Lizzie Borden was gone. There was no one to hear. There were only legs, arms, the hard and the dark, the coming together as if to build a thunderstorm. And then there was the nothingness of night.
She stretched, filling the bed, filling her own limbs as she had never done as a potato picker. A sliver of moonlight spilled through the window. She was only half-awake. Every place where he had kissed or bit, scratched or grabbed stood out in her nerves as a constellation. She felt every tender piece of skin as a hot coal pressed against her, and she groaned happily and rolled over, one pale arm reaching across the expanse of mattress for her lover, for her husband, for the one who had changed her, made her not Lizzie Borden, but someone else. Made her a wife.
He wasn’t there.
In the silvery dark her searching hand closed around a string of pearls. Whole and unbroken, laid out across the pillow beside her.
The woman who was still barely a girl, the wife who as barely still Lizzie Borden, slammed back into herself, into her body so hard that she pressed her face into the mattress and wept.
Careful, careful, said the tinkling voices.
Too late, too late.
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