Ch 11: A Promise to the Ghosts

“She’s too thin.”

“I don’t think she’ll make it.”

“Shh— she has to.”

“Don’t let her hear you talk like that.”

Voices swam around her. Something warm and wet touched Lizzie’s hand. She grimaced and opened her eyes, then squeezed them closed again, hands drawn in to her chest: see-through blue women hovering around her, a white island in an expanding puddle of blood. Someone began talking again but was hushed. Lizzie held her breath; her empty stomach lurched but stayed down. She breathed hard through her nostrils. There was a soft drip, drip, drip.

“Go away,” she whispered, teeth clenched.

“Wish we could, love.”

Her eyes stung and leaked tears. She could feel herself beginning to shake, and she was so frail, so worn threadbare-thin she felt she could shake apart, tremble herself to pieces and disappear in that tub of— she gagged and groaned, leaning forward hard, her fists pressed into her lap. She shook her head. The ghosts were silent.

“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

Something cool brushed her bare shoulder. A voice like June breeze in the lilacs outside her mother’s cottage said, “None of us want to be. But you’re the only one who can do anything about it.”

Lizzie opened her eyes. Her cheeks were wet and she felt cold. She looked to her right: it was the woman who had held the bundle. She stroked Lizzie’s arm soft as a whisper so that the hairs stood up. Lizzie shivered and hiccuped. She glanced up at the rim of the tub, which had stopped dripping, and looked hurriedly away again.

“I can’t do anything. I’m not supposed to even be here.” Then to herself, “I don’t know how to make him happy.”

There was a murmur, a ripple through the crowd of dead wives. “You can’t,” said the ghost at her side. “A man like that cannot be made happy. Nor can any man. If he’s not happy himself, he never will be, and not amount of goodness or sex or babies will change that.”

Lizzie clutched herself as a sob burst out. She clapped her hands to her mouth and then drew them back in horror: they were red, stained like a birthmark. She turned to put her head in the other woman’s shoulder, but there was nothing of substance there. She had only herself.

The ghosts watched her cry, waited until the tears ran out into dry sobs that turned to coughs and then to a heavy stillness. A plump ghost with short curls framing her apple cheeks looked to the leader, who nodded. She slid forward and knelt before Lizzie.

“I had a child, too. Two of them, both lost before they could be born. Bless them.” Her eyes were sad.

“I, too. I, too,” echoed quietly through the tower room.

“It’s little comfort, I know. But sometimes a little can be enough.” She made to pat Lizzie’s hand, though of course there was no weight to the gesture. Lizzie’s breath caught in her throat and she rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands. The plump ghost began to glide away.

“Don’t go,” said Lizzie.

The ghost turned and stopped, looked at her.

It took Lizzie’s mouth a moment to hit up on the question she meant to ask; it had been months since she had spoken to anyone.

“What is your name?”

Again there was a ripple through the crowd. The plump ghost gave a sort of curtsey and smiled sadly. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here.”

Lizzie looked in confusion from her face to the others: all of them nodded, and she felt the same heaviness in each of them. The ghost at her right explained.

“We lost ourselves. Not only our bodies, which is bad enough, but also our selves. He took— some of us resisted, some of us gave it up freely.”

“Gave what up?”

“Our freedom. Our lives. Our selves. Our names. Tell me, what is your name?”

Lizzie opened her mouth, then shut it. She frowned. She cleared her throat and tried again. Her tongue felt thick and heavy, like a slab of meat too big to chew. She gagged, closed her eyes, balled her hands into fists. The ghosts waited.

She ran through her memories, searching for something that would tell her. It was like running through the rooms of the castle, but every image belonged to him: the gowns, the gold, the moonlit bed. Where was she?

She pushed back further: the black horse, her body pressed against his on the long ride. Before that his hands swinging her up into the saddle.

And before that— before that—

“Lizzie. Lizzie Jane Borden.”

The room sighed, the air rustled.

“Then there’s hope,” said the ghost beside her. “There’s hope for you, and for all of us.”

“But— what can I do?” She looked at her crimson hands and around at the room. “What can I possibly do?”

“You can kill ‘im off,” said a sharp-nosed ghost. Heads nodded.

“You can get us our names back,” said the apple-cheeked one.

Lizzie turned to the leader, the old crone of twenty-five. The ghost nodded. “You can, Lizzie Jane Borden. You can save us and save yourself, and stop this from ever happening again. But it will take guts. It will take determination. And it’ll take a sly cunning, and more than likely a broken heart.”

Lizzie shook back her hair. “I’ve had my heart broken. I lost my child.”

The ghost nodded. “But that’s the thing about hearts: they don’t break just the once.”

“I don’t care— I’ll do it. Whatever it takes. I’ll do it for the child, I’ll do it for you.”

“Do it for yourself, Lizzie Borden,” said the ghost. “You’re the one who’ll have to live with what it costs.”

Lizzie nodded. She pushed herself to her feet and looked around the room. The sky outside was growing light. For the first time in months she was up with the dawn. She was hungry and exhausted and scared and blood-spattered, but Lizzie Borden was no longer alone.

She surveyed the women one by one: tall and short, fat and thin, some with the nose and eyes of the far-northern villages, some with freckles and curls. But all of them the same eyes, the same eyes as hers: they had all suffered, they had seen too much, they had lost something vital. But they were still here, and they were ready to get it back.


READER RESPONSE:

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

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Ch 11: A Promise to the Ghosts

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