The Eighth Wife
Don’t open the door, he said, and I listened to him. Listened because, like everyone else in his life, I was afraid.
Well, I thought, leaning against the tower wall to ease the burden on my laundry-bearing shoulders, if there was one thing my husband could cure a body of, it was fear. Oh, he was terrible in that first week of marriage, crashing around the dining room like a heated bull, dragging me up these steps to the door at the top of the tower and shaking a promise from me that I would not, absolutely would not open it. And then there were the stories—all his pretty little aristocratic ladies before me, carried off by consumption and apoplexy and what-not. Yes, consumption—as if those bitches had ever spent a night in the cold in their lives.
So of course I was frightened. But even I, silly little laundry maid that I was, could see the value in a marriage to Count Bluebeard—and he was, contrary to what the stories may have told you, most phenomenally handsome. It wasn’t so bad. The drafts in the castle were loud, but not nearly as cold as the gaps in my father’s thatched roof—and if the rats were bigger than the ones at home, well, at least they didn’t bite.
My husband, too, was not as cruel as he first appeared. His face, with its fierce blue-black hair and cold gray eyes, hid a soft, gentle—even submissive—heart. I vividly remembered bringing him a plate of apples on the morning after our wedding, feeding them to him with my own hands—the soft scratch of his tongue on my fingers when he licked away the juice.
With a sigh, I pushed myself away from the wall and started back down the stairs. The bronze ring in my pocket jingled with each step. My husband was away on business of his own; I had the castle nearly to myself, and he had entrusted me with the keys as well. All the keys. And for the thousandth time, I wondered what was behind that door he had told me never to open.
“Oh, hell,” I said to the stone. I was his wife—didn’t I have the right to know his secrets? I ducked into the nearest chamber and dropped my armload of silk and brocade and cambric onto the bed. Let the servants clean the laundry for once, though I knew they wouldn’t do it as well as I. It was time for me to behave like the lady I was.
I took the stairs two and three at a time. My silk shoes slipped on the damp stone; I kicked them off halfway up and ran barefoot the rest of the way.
The door at the top was nothing fancy, just a few wooden boards bound with iron and stamped with a heavy black lock. I took the ring from my pocket and tried each key in turn. The one that fit—a massive greenish thing with cruel angels’ faces carved in the metal—felt strangely warm and slimy, as though it had been dipped in blood.
That was a bad thought. I shuddered, turned the key, and pushed the door open.
A smell greeted me, dark and sweet as wine. I stepped into the room—the wooden floor was soft and cold beneath my feet—and looked around. The walls were damp, greenish with mold, and the edges of the windows were beginning to crumble. A solitary spider sat in her web between two of the rotting ceiling beams.
There was nothing else there.
I stood in the middle of the room, dumb with bewilderment, my hands slack at my sides. In a little while—perhaps a minute later, perhaps more—I heard footsteps on the stairs.
I knew when he stood in the doorway; the color went out of the walls, and the spider stopped spinning in her web.
“My love,” he said softly. I turned to face him with a violent flush of shame. One strong hand gripped the door post, as if it was all that kept him upright; in the other hand, he held my silk slippers.
“I’m sorry,” I croaked. “I didn’t mean…”
He crossed the room and knelt on the floor in front of me. I could see the tears like ocean fog in his eyes. “I have denied you nothing,” he said. “Not rose gardens or ballrooms or rooms filled with music, or sunlit parlors or libraries full of books. Everything in the castle is yours—everything but this.”
He held one shoe out, like a prince in a very different story. Numbly, I slipped my foot into it.
“I hoped you could trust me,” he said. “I hoped you would believe your own heart over the stories…”
His voice snapped—from anger or pain, I didn’t know. He slid the other shoe onto my foot and remained kneeling, his forehead pressing against my stomach.
“This was all I had to call my own,” he said. “Now it is yours.”
“Wait,” I said—foolishly, for he hadn’t moved a muscle. My heart beat like a mad thing in my chest. I could feel the heat of him in my belly, like the child we might have had one day. I tangled my fingers in his hair as if that fragile grip would keep him with me.
He shook my hands away and rose to his feet; his eyes were dry now, dry and cold. He kissed me, harshly, hungrily, and pulled the key from my pocket.
“The servants will bring you what you need,” he said. I said nothing. The spider sat in her web, frozen as though she herself were prey.
“You will not see me again,” he said. The door closed.
Though I listened until my heart stopped, I could not hear the click as the lock tumbled into place.