It took her heart a full thirty seconds to start beating again, and then the blood rushed through her veins so that she swayed where she stood and had to grip the banister. She wished she could drink wine tonight, dull the senses, take the edge off. “Don’t,” she hissed, “don’t even wish that. Think of them.” She pressed her hand to the bodice of the scarlet dress. It had belonged to one of them, to a friend, another woman who, despite insubstantiality, was at this moment rooting for Lizzie to win, to kill the monster.
Lizzie jumped. Bluebeard stood, legs apart, one gloved hand on his hip. He filled the parlor; his energy pressed against her and she felt herself go soft. She hurried along the hall to the stairs and paused for a second before the mirror. This was going to be harder than she had thought. “Remember yourself, Lizzie Borden,” she mouthed to her reflection. “Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie.” Then she fluttered her hands over her skirt and hurried down the stairs.
She could feel his eyes on her the whole way down, and she flushed, cheeks as ripe as the red dress. She wished she chosen something more subdued, something plainer, something that didn’t rustle so. In the vacuum of her husband’s presence the noise of the dress was amplified. It brought to mind the rustle of a quaking deer in the dry autumn grasses; a dangerous amount of noise when the prey animal is so close to the wolf.
She dropped into a deep curtsy, held it for a moment to compose herself. His black boots shone like oil. He smelled of horse and the particular manly scent that had, not so long ago, lingered on skin through sleepy mornings. Her heart banged in her chest.
“Look at me”
She stood. Lifted her chin: black velvet pantaloons, black and purple doublet with gold buttons, snow white collar starched stiff, and the beard: the blue, blue beard. Her throat tightened and she swallowed. Amidst the blue-blackness his skin was pale white, like a root bent under a rock, never exposed to sun. His cheeks had two high, faint spots of pink. His nostrils flared as he breathed. She did not dare look him in the eyes— and then the dress rustled and she thought, No, I must. I must convince him. So she looked.
It shocked her in her middle, a blast of icy heat that was so fierce and sudden she believed he had stabbed her, guessed her lie before she could even speak it. But he only stood there and looked at her. The dress had a wide neckline that exposed her shoulders and collarbones. The dropped rubies tinkled. The curls at the base of her neck fluttered lightly, feathers in the wind of her husband’s making. She closed her eyes, she couldn’t help it.
She felt him stiffen, take offense. And she opened her mouth and spoke.
“My lord. My lord… You have been away a long, long time.” Her voice trembled, and as she said it, as she attempted to lie, attempted to say she had missed him or, she didn’t know what, a tremor went through her body. She was a porcelain doll cracking apart, breaking in half with the confusion of it.
Somewhere in her, she loved him. Or, she needed him. Or, she wanted to be small in comparison to him.
And elsewhere in herself she grieved at how much of her soul she had given up, how much she had forgotten.
Up in the tower, the ghosts waited.
Down in the cellar the gray people waited.
Out on the battlefield Jacobi and Hescher paused in their noble fight for the king.
In the crofter’s hut the Widow Borden set down her needlework and coughed and coughed until there was blood on the handkerchief.
And in the parlor of her own castle, Lizzie Borden cried. Two small tears, one for each eye, slipped out from under her lashes, ran down her pale and powdered cheeks and dropped from her jaw.
Two pearls, two dewdrops, caught on the meaty finger of the master. He put his finger to his mouth and tasted.
“It is good for a wife to weep when she is alone.”
Then he kissed her. First at the edge of her lashes, then her cheeks, then her neck (which lifted of its own accord), and then on her red, red mouth.
Lizzie was a flame. She could flare up and burn the whole place down or sputter and go out. Bluebeard was the wind. His beard bristled against her face. His two large hands pushed against the red silk at her shoulders. She fabric slid, inched, grew thin at his touch. Lizzie touched the brass buttons, dug her fingers into the thick velvet, kissed her husband back.
His hands found the satin-covered buttons on the back of the dress: one, two, three, they popped off, dropped like wild strawberries on the ornamental carpet. “Wife, wife,” his mustache brushed against her ear and goosebumps broke out along her bare arms.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Yes—“
The grandfather clock chimed loud as church bells and Lizzie leapt back and stumbled on the hem of her gown. He caught her arm and held it; his hand was like a vice. Neither moved.
“Oh, oh,” she said.
Bluebeard’s mouth curled into a smile beneath his blue-black mustache. “Dinner. I find I have a terrible appetite.”
He pulled her upward with a jerk so that she fell against him. Then he held out his arm and husband and wife crossed the parlor into the dining room.
When Lizzie sat down at the table her mind was reeling. Her fingers clattered the silverware and she had to stop and take a breath. Bluebeard was watching her, but he only looked pleased at the effect.
He continued to watch her as she cut her meat, as she chewed it, as she forced the potatoes down with as much ease as she could muster. She ate to distract herself, though the food sat like a brick in her stomach. She tore a piece of bread and dipped it in the stew and silently blessed Bri, the jowly woman in the kitchen, all the others who were helping her whether they knew it or not.
Lizzie looked up. “My lord?”
“You have not touched your wine.”
She swallowed. “No, my lord.” She took a breath. “Neither have you touched yours.” Her voice, she thought, seemed level, even.
He picked up his glass and sniffed it, nose deep in the bell of the crystal. He narrowed his eyes; like a great cat, like a tiger.
“I have the finest wines.”
Lizzie understood what was expected. “Yes, my lord. The finest.”
He spread his arms wide; light from the lamps glinted off the ring on his little finger. “I have the richest castle.”
“Yes, my lord. I have never seen richer.”
He leaned forward and looked at her. “And I have the most faithful wife.”
Lizzie’s mouth was dry. Her voice was like old leaves in winter but she forced herself to speak up. “Y-yes, my lord. As faithful a wife as such a great man deserves.”
He tipped his head to the side and studied her. He was waiting. The ghosts were waiting. The gray people were waiting. The very walls and bricks and the roots of the grass around the castle were waiting.
Lizzie raised her glass. “To the man who taught me what it is to be a wife.”
His smile curled wider, showed teeth. “To my faithful wife.”
He tipped the glass, poured the wine into his mouth past strong, white teeth. Lizzie brought hers to her lips, paused, tilted it—
Dong! Dong! Dong!
She dropped the glass in surprise. It was the grandfather clock again. Wine splashed across her neck, soaked down into bodice in red rivulets.
Bluebeard stood. He stood powerfully. He stood not at all like a man who had just been poisoned. And Lizzie knew— it hadn’t worked. It wasn’t the right wine, or the poison had all been a lie, the ghosts, the gray people, they were all in his employ. They were all his puppets and there was no one she could trust.
He crossed the space between them in three strides, bent low and licked at the wine on her neck. His teeth caught the silver chain. She shuddered.
“It is time we were to bed, wife.”
Her body obeyed. She stood, felt him lift her, swing her legs up as if she were a child. He took the stairs three at a time, and every step closer to the bedroom she lost a bit of herself, of Lizzie Borden. She let her eyes close. It was too much, too much! How could anyone have asked it of her? How could she have asked it of herself? He was too powerful, to great, to big a man— she could not take him down, the treasure would never be hers, she would belong to him in life and in death when the time came that he was done with her.
He flung open the door, heaved her onto the bed. He pulled at the dress. It, too, obeyed the master of the castle: it split in half, peeled apart as easily as a rose drops petals.
He stopped. Looked at her chest, looked into her face and smiled a wicked smile.
In a far, distant room in her mind, the real Lizzie Borden realized it: he saw the key. The imposter. And he knew at once. It was all over.
Then he jerked, stiffened. He grabbed at his chest in panic and fell with a groan on top of her.
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 Arrowsmith DeCoux