Bluebeard roared in pain! He reared back and arched off the floor. Lizzie lifted her hands in shock and surprise, and felt the chain of lamp-light-blessing break all around her. But her sisters recovered and the comfort of their presence flowed back through her, even as the man on the floor spat and cursed and howled. He clawed at his chest, but he stayed clear of the cavity, the wound. He could not touch his own heart.
“It pains you,” said Lizzie.
“God and the Devil, yes, it hurts!” he raged. He thrashed some more.
“Be quiet. And be still.” And he was, though the pain was still visible.
Lizzie leaned forward and evened the ends of silver hair. She looked carefully, dipped the needle, and began to sew.
Bluebeard’s face went red. His chest heaved in broken breaths, but true to her command he remained silent. The needle rose and fell. She found the channels and the veins and matched them up with small and even stitches. When she had made it all the way around the heart and watched to see that it pumped evenly, steadily, she folded the muscles and the skin back over and closed the hole.
She tied off the thread and rocked back onto her heels. Then she nodded and pushed herself to standing.
“Lizzie?” It was Magda, round face full of concern. “Should we— let him speak?”
“You mean, maybe with his heart returned to his body he’ll… repent?”
“Doubtful,” spat Fabiana, but she did not argue further.
Lizzie looked at them. “All right. But it might not have made any difference for him. It was, most of all, for us. So we could be free.” She nodded at Bluebeard, so reduced before them. “You have no more power over us, and so we will … we will also release you. You may move and speak,” Bri pressed something into her hand— it was the handle of the heavy skillet, “but don’t test us any further.”
As soon as she had finished, Bluebeard leapt to his feet. He screamed and pulled at the stitches in his chest, but they held. Of course they held. “This is no kindness! This is punishment! Worse than death! Gaaah!” His words dissolved into animal cries and the circle stepped back, opened to give him room, but he seemed not to see them.
He struggled with an unseen opponent, swung his large hands, tore at his own hair, beat his breast. It raised to a crescendo, so loud, in fact, that Lizzie was on the verge of saying he must fall silent again. But then there came a rider, no, two.
Lizzie ran to farthest window, closest to the east. There, visible only because of the blazing white light behind him, was the Night Rider on his horse of velvet black. But he was pursued, almost passed, by the Rider of the Breaking Dawn! The second rider dazzled and shone; the land behind him was lit, a blue-white cloak drawn over everything, ending the dark nighttime sooner than was natural.
The old witch crouched behind the Dawn, bony fingers tight on his pristine shoulders.
“Lizzie!” She turned. Four of the others struggled with Bluebeard. For a moment she thought he had attacked them, but then she saw that they tried to force him away from the window.
“Let me go! Let me go!” he growled, desperate as a child.
The light came closer. Lizzie heard a cry and looked out her window again— then toppled backward as Baba Yaga came flying through!
“There you are, my old friend!”
Bluebeard turned and saw her, whimpered and fought more frantically for escape, but the witch ignored him completely. She walked to the porcelain tub and laid her hands on it. In response, it lifted off the stone floor and hovered there. She spoke to Bluebeard without looking at him.
“I am done with you, freer than I had hoped to be, though it’s no credit to me. I would have stabbed your heart, not given it back to you.”
Bluebeard howled again and Lizzie rushed to help hold him. Baba Yaga stopped her. “Let him go. You can make the stitches, close the wound, but if the patient doesn’t want to live…” she held her hands out, empty. Lizzie looked at her, then nodded to the others. They released him. Bluebeard howled anew, stepped back and threw himself headlong out the tower window.
They heard his voice wail and change key. Such a long way down, or was Baba Yaga playing with time again?
Then there was the crunch and the silence, such complete silence. Lizzie’s eyes stung— and she was crying.
“Mistress?” said Bri.
And then they were all around her, all of them, even, though putting on a show of recalcitrance, Baba Yaga. Lizzie sobbed and sobbed, and some of the others cried, too.
“I thought— I thought—“
“You thought you could save him.” It was the witch. “Even though I had expressly told you the opposite a moment before?” She sighed dramatically but Lizzie didn’t care. Her heart ached in her chest, ached as if the feeling would never go away.
“That’s why it was you and not me, Lizzie Borden,” said Baba Yaga.
“Yes, nor me,” said Fabiana. “But this was better. I feel angry but— free.” She nodded. “Free of him. I have no sins to atone for except my own stupidity, and I have been punished enough for that already, I think.”
“I should say so,” said Baba Yaga. “It doesn’t work that way, actually, but yes, you should be done carrying around any guilt over this. It only gives wrinkles and ulcers, and you have your lives to live.”
There was a rumble under their feet.
Lizzie rubbed her eyes and looked up. “What was that?” The stones shook again. Every face was puzzled and alarmed.
“Ah,” said Baba Yaga, “that is the castle falling apart beneath us.”
There were shrieks and cries of disbelief, then a rush for the door. Lizzie turned back. Baba Yaga was climbing into her porcelain tub. “Will you take Taisia? Will you carry her out?”
Baba Yaga’s mouth twitched, but she nodded. When Lizzie staggered over with the limp body and heaved it into the tub, a look of surprise passed over the witch’s face.
“You knew her, didn’t you? She helped us so much.”
“I didn’t know her, but she knew me. Hm.” She said no more except, “Time to leave, girl, or you’ll be sharing a grave with him.” Then she leaned back and the porcelain tub copied her, rearing back and then rushing forward. It took Lizzie one long second to realize what was happening. She dashed for the stairs just as the witch flew through the wall.
After that everything crumbled faster. The steps fell away as soon as she leaped from them. Candles and mirrors and paintings crashed to the floor. She had to slide down the carved wooden banister to avoid a sudden sinkhole in the second-floor staircase. She sprinted across the parlor and flung open the doors. Something sharp and tinkling crashed behind her— the chandelier, certainly. She felt a pang of regret. All this, all this was hers. Her inheritance.
But then she saw the others on the far side of the lawn, and her heart swelled. No, this was her inheritance, this sisterhood, this belonging, this strength. She went and stood by them. Their numbers grew as the Gray People hurried out from the back of the building and joined Bri, who did her best to explain what was happening.
They stood together, free at last, and watched the castle fall.
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