How Bluebeard Ends / Andrea Blythe

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CONTENT WARNING: violence and gore.

***

KEEPSAKE

The cabinet stays closed and locked always. The plain solid wood, glossy and slick, houses a simple iron lock. It is only opened when the nightmares come, a flash of red in the dark of her sleep wetly filling up her soul with sticky fear.

Then, she removes a small key still stained with blood. It will never be washed clean, and she would not want it to, would not want to erase evidence of past crimes.

The solid thunk of the lock disengaging is one of the most satisfying sounds she knows. The scrape of the wood door against its frame shoots a thrill down her spine. The light falling into the dark shadows of the cabinet eases a sigh of relief from deep within her chest.

The head of her husband rests on a silver dish, the hair of his blue beard gummy in a pool of congealed blood. His eyes are rolled up in his head, as if praying to God to save him from his interminable purgatory.

She reaches out and strokes his cool, grey skin. How many wives had her husband kept locked away in a small dark room? It is only right that he should find his resting place in a small, secret box. Only right that he be there to soothe her after all is done.

***

SUN, DUST, GRASS

“Anne, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?” she cries out from the tower, voice cracking like a shattered mirror. The heavy steps of her husband are on the stairs; the saber scratches upon stone walls.

“I see nothing but the sun, which makes a dust, and the grass, which is green,” calls Anne, not taking her eyes from the horizon.

The grass twitches, its green blades shifting in reply to the slow turn of the sky’s light and ruffling in a sparse fragment of wind. It welcomes trails of ants between its leaves, offers a shelter for worms within its roots.

The dust lies still on the road, waiting for a passerby to stir it. Inside the great rooms of the manor, it churns as three figures shift like pieces in a game no one will win. The dust brushes against the edges of their coats, whispers against the hair on their necks as it seeks a candlestick or baroque statue to light upon, something ornate and difficult to clean.

The indiscriminate sun bakes the dusty road, nourishes the verdant grass, yellows the leaves of swaying trees. It warms the stones of the manor, falling in pale beams through cracks in the curtains. It blinds the seeking eyes of sister Anne and flushes the face of the desperate wife. It calls up a sweat in the raging husband and glints off the sharpened saber.

Sun, dust, and grass hear the sisters calling to each other. They feel the weight of the man upon the world. They are aware of them as they are of any animal movement. They do nothing. Nothing to be done. Nothing but exist, a stage upon which violence is sprung.

***

KEY

The weight of it is heavy in her hand, bearing in its tiny shape her husband’s proclamation and the promise she granted. In its sharp teeth, it holds a secret, closed away behind a small door at the end of a long hall. She tries to read the ugly swirls of its head, curling like a curved script.

A key is only decipherable inside the lock it fits.

He promised just anger and resentment should she disobey him, having placed this object in her hand. How it longs to find its way home. How it twitches and frets inside her sweating palm. How it whispers lascivious desires of penetration and turning.

A key is only pacified inside the lock it fits.

She can feel its pull through thick floors and heaving walls, through the resonant air inside many empty chambers, through intricate tapestries and plush curtains, through the fine fabric of her dress, through her skin. There is nowhere she can put it without knowing how to map out the movements of her limbs to obtain it.

So, she places it on her tongue and tastes iron, the metallic flavor biting at the back of her teeth. After swallowing, it thuds into her stomach where she can feel it turning, where it begins to corrode. The black key churning into white powder, lead carbonate filtering through her limbs. Tumblers click into place, unlocking doors within herself she had not known, unleashing secrets kept hidden even from herself.

A key is only dangerous inside the lock it fits.

***

WIVES

They stay where he put them, where they will never disobey him again. Their femaleness strung up and arranged along the walls. Their hollow physicality a testament to his power.

They fade, become ashen in their cold patience, waiting.

They drip, drip, drip. Every crimson drop beads from the tips of their toes, ripples into a single black pool at their feet. All blood is their blood. All blood is one blood.

Collectively, they decide they are bored with this sedentary non-life. They are tired of being ornaments upon a wall. They are tired of waiting for someone to find and release them.

One by one, they pull the nails from their flesh and climb down from their mounts. They stretch their cold limbs. They reach for each other, stitch their broken bodies, sewing their need for comfort into a single merged form.

All blood is one blood.

The red oozes between her bare toes as she strides across the room. Her wire hair is tangled with the memory of their murders. Her single heart thrums to life with their collective anger. Her palms tingle with their longing for revenge.

The room cannot contain her, will not. When she breaks free, she knows exactly upon whom she will call.

***

ROOMS

There are thirty-seven of them including the forbidden closet, sitting rooms and parlors and dining rooms and bedrooms. She floats through each one awed by the wealth before her⁠—heavy antique furniture, crystal chandeliers, intricate tapestries, silver plate ware, gold candlesticks. She peers into wardrobes containing whisper soft silks and plush velvets. She opens strongboxes unveiling riches in the form of coins and diamonds.

From room to room, she examines the house, working her way methodically toward the little forbidden cabinet she knows must contain some luxury of astounding beauty to be kept so secret. She will reach it eventually, but for now revels in the exploration of this grand manor that has become partly hers.

Of all the opulence presented, it is the library at last that captures her. The room smells richly of leather and paper and ink. A tall gilded window allows gentle light to filter into the room, illuminating the carefully polished wood shelves that line three of the walls. Each shelf is filled with gleaming leather-bound volumes, titles stamped in gold upon their spines. There are hundreds, no, thousands of books⁠—history and philosophy and poetry and science and novels in the romantic or gothic or realist styles. Her fingers brush their spines, draw out any book that catches her attention until her arms are heavy with them. The books form a crooked stack on the small side table next to a large reading chair. She curls up on its soft cushions, the chair dwarfing her in its immense size, being clearly intended for her husband. A small sigh escapes her lips as she cracks open the first book, the words mapping out worlds before her. She forgets about the circle of keys fallen to the carpet, forgets about rooms open or forbidden, forgets about promises and husbands.

***

PROMISES

When she had stood in her glittering dress and vowed to honor this man as her husband, she had barely known him. In the days and weeks that followed, he remained a stranger, though she noted the way he cut his meat into tiny pieces before placing it in his large mouth, the way he cleaned his nails with a small brush as he sat the fire, the way his eyes followed her through each room with a measuring gaze she could not interpret.

Promises are such heavy things when spoken, like lead upon the tongue, the weight of them always present in the keeping.

Now he stands before her, saying his goodbyes and giving her an iron ring of keys able to unlock all the doors of the manor. For a moment, his hands engulf hers and she wonders if this is a sign of warmth, if at last some part of him is being revealed in this leaving. But he is exhorting her not to use the smallest key, the little one that unlocks the room at the end of the hall, the room she is meant to never enter. She sighs, weary, and finds she does not have the strength to carry any more vows than the ones she had already made.

“Well,” she says, removing the little key and offering it to him. “You best have this back then.”

He lowers his hands. His narrowed eyes flick from her to the key and back again.

“I have no need for a key to door I am not allowed to open,” she explains, still holding the key out before her. She can feel the tug of temptation, the gut deep desire to know more of him, to unveil his secrets⁠—but she does not wish to carry the weight of them any more than she wishes to carry the weight of more promises.

When he still will not take it, she lets it go. The key falls, pinging off a small grate in the floor and down into the pipes. It bounces off metal and continues clinking deeply beneath the manor and into the bowels of the earth. The wife and husband watch the grate, listening to the unspoken promise disappearing. For all they know, it will continue falling until the end of the world.

***

HAND IN HAND

In this first meeting, he greets her with a smile that reveals nothing of himself. All politeness, as she was taught, she offers a smile in return and strokes the stem of a wine glass. She wonders if she makes a portrait, if the curve of her neck and the stray hairs around her face make her into a kind of golden image painted in oil. Her cheeks are warm, but she is not sure if it is because she is blushing or if she has swallowed too much of the blood-red wine.

She is smiling and polite, so he is assured. He rests his hand on the table cloth, palm up, open and empty in front of her. His fingers curve in anticipation of her own hand joining his, her own hand twitching like a spider against her leg. He is waiting for her to choose him. He cannot see any other choice.

But she knows there are men who are foxes, their red hearts sleek with cunning. They whisper through the world, slip through dappled days, and carry secrets in their crimson pelts. Their smiles bright with needle teeth. Their witty words a lure into dank dens. So welcoming, so considerate, so greedy.

There are men who are wolves, with their too big ears and too large eyes and too sharp teeth. They lurk along paths in anticipation of wandering red hoods. They huff and puff over their aching ravenous bellies. They snap and snatch at any lost soul, ready at a moment to swallow them whole.

There are men who are tigers, golden eyes calmly watchful from the tall grass of their desire, their gaze avid upon some pair of shapely thighs as upon a gazelle. Every stripe ripples as they slink through shadows, always waiting, always ready to embrace with their bloody paws, to rake soft flesh with shining claws.

There are men who are hunters and ogres and princes and thieves, all their indistinguishable smiling faces, so nice, so kind. She does not know this man, or what furtive hungers lie behind his smile, whether his charm carries with it sanctuary or destruction.

Two hands are just two hands, just the flesh and bone and skin of strangers touching. Two hands joined together are a choice⁠—a story shifting, shutting off one set of possibilities, opening others. She could place her palm, her life in his. Could let him lead her into an unseen future, some bloody conclusion or happily ever after. Or she could draw away, fingers empty, and find another path, seek out other endings⁠—for there are so many endings.

***

Andrea Blythe bides her time waiting for the apocalypse by writing speculative poetry and fiction. She is the author of Your Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch (2018) a collection of erasure poems created from the pages of Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyers, and coauthor of Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press, 2018), a collaborative chapbook written with Laura Madeline Wiseman. She is cohost of the New Books in Poetry podcast, serves as an associate editor for Zoetic Press, and is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. 

See more: www.andreablythe.com