Ch 20: The Wives Return

It was bearable, the thick, warm liquid rising up her skin— until she touched something solid. She screamed, drew her arm out and hopped around making little panicked yips and spattering blood everywhere. Eldest watched her.

“Be careful with that. We might need it.”

Her voice was dry, but the truth of her words cut through Lizzie and she drew a trembling breath. “It’s so…” She couldn’t finish.

Apple drifted closer and laid an intangible hand on Lizzie’s arm. “We’re friends, Lizzie. It’s terrible, but you won’t have to do it alone for long. We’ll help. We’re here and we’re so close. Please.”

Lizzie nodded, looked at her bloody arm and then away. She took a deep breath and slowly sunk her hands down into the vat once more. She closed her eyes as she worked, and she spoke aloud.

“I helped deliver our goat when I was a girl. The kid wouldn’t come out, and they told me I had the smallest hands.” She grimaced and swallowed. Her face was pale. She bit her tongue and lifted. The blood ran off the thing in her outstretched hands: one bare breast. Lizzie closed her eyes again and breathed hard. She shuffled to one side and laid it out on the flagstones, shuffled back and immersed her arms again.

“It was a little like this— that feeling. I couldn’t think about it much. But then, I felt the kid, the tiny head and two little nubs where the horns would be,” she drew out a disembodied arm; the nails were still pink with white half-moons at their tips. She swallowed again, laid it on the floor and continued. “I didn’t need my eyes. I pushed the kid. The nanny goat bleated, but she was held tight and couldn’t move. It didn’t seem possible. I wanted to quit. But Hescher was there,” she looked to the side, “my brother. And he told me that if I didn’t get the kid out, they both would die, mother and child.” She drew another breath and lifted hard: a leg. A foot. Half a soft stomach. She paused and gagged when she pulled out a heart, free from its protective rib cage, but she didn’t stop, not even when her fingers gripped hair and she found herself face to face with a corporeal, solid Eldest.

“I turned the kid, and the nanny goat pushed. I helped her draw her child out. They lived.” She wiped a shaking arm against her forehead. The tower was silent save for Bluebeard’s heavy and infrequent breathing and the drip-drip of blood spilling onto the floor.

The limbs and faces and tiny bones accumulated. She shifted them left and right as she worked. Sometimes she could tell at once which parts went together, were part of the same ‘set.’ Other times the ghosts gave little gasps of recognition and pointed for her to move a leg or a foot or a spleen here or there.

And the bodies, desecrated and crudely divided were no longer terrifying. They were parts to a puzzle. They were field stones meant to fit together just so to build a pasture wall. Lizzie did not speak, only moved back and forth, laying all the pieces out. The moon rose up, crested the tower, sank again, and still she worked. Still Bri kept watch with her skillet. Still the ghosts waited.

But there was a change. Everyone could feel it. A growing excitement. A gravid sense of potential— of hope.

At last Lizzie straightened and looked around. She rubbed her arm over her eyes. Her fingernails and cuticles were stained cherry red, as if she was suffering from a magical rust.

“What do I do now?”

“Put us back together, Lizzie Borden,” said Eldest.

She nodded, bent to touch a foot to a severed leg.

“Wait.” It was Bri. They all looked at her. She pointed at Bluebeard. “He’s moving.”

The great man stirred. Only slightly, but it sent a thrill of fear through Lizzie. They all looked to her.

She crossed the floor, footsteps wet on the stones; she had peeled off her ruined stockings long ago. She hesitated, reached for him, pulled hard and yanked the dagger out from under his shoulder. She set it down by the bodies.

“Hurry, Lizzie,” said Apple. “Hurry and we’ll help.”

She slid the food up to its ankle. Her hands buzzed with warmth, and there was a hum in her ears, like far off cicadas in high summer. She looked around, looked down at the ankle. There was a bright red scar— but they were whole. The body had repaired itself.

Maybe she hadn’t really believed it could happen until then, or maybe that coming-back-to-life wasn’t just in the corpses but in the very air. Lizzie Borden’s hands moved like lightning. Each piece found its place, and every time there was a proper connection she felt that tingling in her fingers and the spreading warmth. It was like assembling a quilt, but faster— no, it wasn’t like a quilt at all. Lizzie raced from bottom to top, as fast as she carefully could.

And then she set the head back onto the neck, and Eldest gasped and woke up.

The ghosts cried out— Eldest, who had been at Lizzie’s side, whose hands (cool as leaves) had at times guided her own, was gone. Her blue ghost was gone. It had rushed into the open mouth, filled the long-unused lungs, and now she was alive.

She gasped and heaved. Her eyes raced, looking everywhere.

“Are you all right? Eldest, are you all right?” Fear gripped Lizzie’s stomach. I don’t know what I’m doing— but I’m trying to do it right! “Eldest?”

The woman pushed herself up onto her elbows and blinked. She squinted and looked hard at Lizzie, as if her eyes weren’t focusing properly.

“Why are you calling me that?’

Lizzie choked. “You can talk!”

“Why are you calling me ‘Eldest’?”

“I don’t know— because you didn’t remember your name and there are so many of you and…” She grew quiet, waited.

The woman closed her eyes. She was very still. “Joanna,” she said. “My name is Joanna Elizabeth Warren.”

Lizzie fell on her, hugged her hard. Joanna didn’t move for a moment. Then one arm lifted, and then the other, and they embraced.

“Mistress?” Bri’s voice was quiet as a sparrow in a hedge.

Lizzie looked up. Bri was pointing at the shifting bulk on the floor.

“Oh God, there’s not much time.”

“Don’t hit him, yet,” said Olive. Her eyes were shrewd, screwed up as she examined him. “Something is not right with him— many things. He might only wake up from a blow— from that or the blade. Hurry, Lizzie Borden. I want to have my body back so I can get my hands on him. Don’t let me miss my chance.”

Lizzie nodded. She turned to Joanna. “Can you help?”

Joanna nodded. She didn’t look sure, but she crouched near Lizzie and copied her: fingers all together, intestines quickly but gently tucked back into place, an ear, an arm, the firm readjustment of a rib.

Every body they touched responded. Every seam re-forged itself. The room began to steam. It glowed with a pink-orange mist. Some of the women were pale and too weak. It was Olive who suggested the blood. Lizzie was too amazed, to hopeful, to shot through with urgency and adrenaline to be disgusted when they dipped their cupped hands in and drank.

The ones who could help, did, and the work went fast and faster: Emma, Marie, Gladiola, Lisette, Helena, Magdalena (that was Apple), Verity, Fabiana (that was Olive, who took her post immediately at Bri’s side). The women rose up and the room became crowded.

At last they were all accounted for, every one of them. Some still looked confused. Some Lizzie suspected suffered from her inadequate assembly; they moved stiffly or held their ribs. But every one of them was alive. Every one of them had returned; no more ghosts lingered in the air, and the voices that spoke were no longer only whispers.

Lizzie looked to Magdalena (Magda— she remembered that much). “After the kid was born, Biddy Henry told me I could be a midwife. That I should apprentice myself to her.” She grinned. “I could be a doctor—“

A groan, a growl, a waking bear, the rutting cry of a wild boar stopped all conversation.

“Mistress?” Bri whispered.

Bluebeard sat up.


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 Arrowsmith DeCoux

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Ch 20: The Wives Return

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