He was gone on business, that’s what she told herself. There was nothing strange about it. He had a large estate to attend to, and he had left without announcement before. The fact that he had vanished the night she told him about the child… it was coincidence. Mostly, she didn’t talk to herself, tried not to think anything, because even Lizzie wasn’t convinced.
She wept when she lost the pregnancy. Her stomach cramped sharp and she bled into the porcelain chamber pot until it slid out of her. She didn’t look. She told herself it had barely been a child at all. That there would be others. But mostly, she was afraid.
Had she done something wrong? Back in the village unless a girl was unwed or the family was poor and already had a dozen children, the news of a baby was always cause for celebration. Neighbors gathered without invitation at the lucky couple’s door bearing whatever small gifts they had, and everyone share a meal. It was the same feeling as when the last winter chill was blown from the air and small green sprouts peeked out of the long-barren earth. It was a promise. A beginning. What had she done wrong?
She slept and cried, cried and slept. She hardly ate. Seven days went by, and then another seven. He had never been absent this long. She stopped sleeping, barely ate. Her eyes were ringed with with fatigue. Her hips and ribs began to show through her skin. She wore only a graying white under-dress and no stockings at all. She stopped visiting the Room of Gowns. Outside the world bloomed full and green. She could have wandered the grounds, explored, found secret places of her own. But she didn’t. Not until she heard the child crying.
The first cry woke her from a sleepless stupor. It was night— the beginning or the middle she didn’t know: it was dark and she was lying on top of the coverlet in their bed.
She listened without moving. Her head throbbed with a sharp pain in each temple. The sound kept on and at last she sat up.
She swung her thin legs over the side of the bed and cocked her head. This was more attention than she had given anything since her husband had left. Her heart batted against her ribs, a moth trying to get out.
She slid to her feet, crossed the room in the dark without needing a light, opened the door, went into the hall. She listened, walked, listened; she stopped at doorways, rooms full of treasures she had memorized; she followed the cry.
It grew more urgent. Whether the sound changed or the change was solely in her, her nerves flared. She felt the air against her skin, the pile of the carpet on the soles of her feet, sensed the shapes of armoires and side tables as a bat would. She shuffled faster. Turned. Went up a flight of stairs and began to search that floor, doubled back, hurried up another flight. The sound was louder now, clearer. She began to run.
Up and up. She followed the sound like an animal following scent. Her feet flew, her lungs burned but she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. Up and up in a spiral, feet on cold stone steps. Up, until she slammed into a door, flew back hard, saved herself by grabbing the knob.
It was silent now. The child had stopped crying; maybe there had been no cries at all. She was breathing hard. Her throat was on fire. She had to find it, find the baby, her baby. She yanked on the door. It didn’t move.
She turned the knob hard and pulled again. Nothing.
Without any thought to what she was doing she plunged a hand into her slip and pulled out the key on the silver chain. She pulled it over her head but it caught on her hair so she tugged until the chain snapped and ran cool down her bare arms.
Her hands trembled. The key rattled against the lock plate and then, with an audible sigh, slipped into place.
She turned the key. She grasped the knob. She opened to door.
The ghosts of Bluebeard’s many wives floated silver-blue as moonlight in the blackness. There were three dozen of them, nearly all rather young, and all very beautiful. Their eyes were fixed on the living body before them and the pale young woman stared back.
Had the last few weeks not been so hard on her, she would surely have turned and ran. But her exhausted mind could only think one thing: “my child?”
The ghosts looked at each other. One of the older ones, perhaps she was twenty-five, glided forward, a bundle in her arms. She stopped a few paces from the door.
“My child?” she asked again.
The ghost before her nodded, though others cast worried looks about. “Come nearer.”
She stepped forward, bare feet on the old wooden planks. One step, another, another with her heart rising into her throat, her arms already reaching out, the key swinging from her fingers on its long chain.
The ghost with the bundle slid back. The living woman stepped forward. The crowd of ghost wives parted and made an dark path between their luminous bodies.
“She’s not doing well,” whispered one.
“Too far gone. We waited too long,” said another.
“I don’t want to wait for the next one,” said a third. Lizzie heard none of this.
At the center of the room the ghost with the child-sized bundle stopped. “Light the lamp.”
The other ghosts hissed. “Too risky.” “Too soon.” “Don’t—“ but the leader hushed them with her milky eyes.
There was a raised stone pillar. Lizzie felt for it, found a lamp and a flint, struck once, twice, three times with her trembling hands, never taking her eyes off the bundle.
The lamp flared. The ghost woman turned opaque, sheer as a gauze curtain. Lizzie reached for the child and then froze.
Through the ghost’s form, in the yellow light of the single lamp, she saw a tub, large and white and porcelain, big enough to mash grapes in for wine.
“What…” her mouth began. But then bile rose in her throat. She gagged, gripped the side of the tub, dropped the key, dropped to her knees and retched.
“Oh, that’s no good! We’ll never get the blood off!” said one of the ghosts.
The tub was full to the brim: hands and legs, exposed bone, wide-eyed faces: the chopped up bodies of Bluebeard’s wives. Lizzie’s trembling shook the tub making blood pour over its lip like a decorative fountain. It pooled and spread and seeped into the silver key.
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