The Keys: A Gothic Re-telling of Bluebeard with Zombies PT Two

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The house was built on a high cliff overlooking the sea.

The ground floor, our suite, had been built on level ground at the foot of a steep mountain. The two upper stories climbed the rocky slope, connected by crumbling stairways. Those higher floors looked very old and treacherous under their red tiled roofs, overgrown by moss and flowering vines. No wonder my husband warned me not to go up there.

As the days wore on, I sat in the garden gazing up at that forbidden zone. I’d heard voices, seen movements of flowers and leaves that suggested people walking on the stairs. The servants kept their distance, watching me.

At night, drums and songs filtered over the surf.

The house ticked.

weird automaton

Jean del Jean showed me more of Armand’s collection, taking me into closets where mechanical women sat in powdered wigs dealing cards, or glided across the floor on rails, waltzing alone. Jean del Jean dusted them, oiled their wooden parts, kept them wound up. In another room, stood cabinets of gleaming bottles filled with potions and elixirs, like the one given to me in St. Malo. I’d seen them on the dinner table, full, and then empty, with no memory of having drunk of them.

One evening, a large folio album appeared near the fire where I sat writing letters to Mamma. Amid notices of Armand’s concert tours, playbills, pressed flowers, and invitations to aristocratic houses, were engravings—-wedding pictures of my young, handsome Armand and his three wives.

actress

His first wife glistened with jewels. She’d been clearly older than Armand, coifed blonde hair, high cheekbones, melting eyes, Polish aristocracy. The next wife, an actress with flirtatious eyes, wore a powdered wig, beauty spots, deep décolleté. The third was of a darker aspect. Her gaze was hypnotic, her black hair wild, her fingers long and pointed. She was a singer, but there was something of the witch about her.

In time, the monotonous ticking of the automatons receded, and I could hear the faint, haunting melody of a piano playing. It came from somewhere in the house, but where? The music filled my head; I grew listless with its melancholy notes. Then the ticking sound began to wander in again, to intrude into my mind.

Jean del Jean appeared, carrying a little windup doll. He wouldn’t let me see it, but, taunting playfully, lured me down forbidden corridors where he unexpectedly vanished.
One day, he abandoned me before an open stairway leading up into darkness. The piano was playing. Voices. Who was up there?

I touched the rubies at my throat as if I feared for my head. But curiosity drove me up the stairs. At the top I found a vine-entangled pergola, and then more stairs.

The music grew louder as I climbed. On the landing was an open door. I stepped inside.
The suite, with it high, frescoed ceilings and damask walls, was of another age entirely. Bouquets of tuberose filled the room, their sweetness masking an insidious, vaguely disgusting odor.

Inside, a grand stairway rose up to another open door.

I climbed quietly, secretly, glancing over my shoulder, hoping I wasn’t being followed. At the top, I stayed behind the doorjamb and looked in.

Reflected in the glass of a tall mirror, was a tall, dark lady, her body like marble under a gauzy violet dressing gown. Vivienne was standing behind her, deeply absorbed in brushing the lady’s long, raven hair.

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The lady’s reflected eyes were empty; the over-painted features (I stifled a gasp) were those of Armand’s third wife!

Had I married a secret bigamist?

Seemingly disappointed that she could not bring the dried, black locks to a shine, Vivienne set her hairbrush on the dressing table.

“Come,” she whispered, pinching the lady’s elbow.

As I backed away, the lady turned so woodenly, I wondered if she were perhaps only an exceedingly lifelike automaton. Fanatical collectors often sought to innovate, to improve the objects of their passion, did they not?

All unseeing, the lady crossed the room with heavy, dragging steps. Vivienne guided her into a high-backed chair, and crossed herself.

“Now, Madame Aglentine, you wait there. Monsieur Armand will be down shortly.”

What?

Madame Aglentine said nothing, only stared towards a sun-bright window where a small bird fluttered and cried, caught in a tangle of bougainvillea.

Vivienne was coming out.

I rushed down another passage, and hurried across a gallery to a narrow stairway. Mounting higher into the house, I heard the music, the Mephisto Waltz crashing towards climax.

When I got to the landing, the piano rang to silence.

A door was open on a richly decorated boudoir. He was there, with his back to me, embracing a lady in a powdered wig, kissing her hungrily.

My heart sank.

Armand!

Finally, he released her. Her head remained tilted back on her swan-like neck. Her heavy makeup was smeared and her lips, still wet from kissing, were blue. Armand jerked away. The lady’s posture did not change.

MArie

“Hettie!” he shouted. My chaperone stepped out from behind the bed curtains. “Fix her face. It disgusts me.”

Armand grabbed Hettie and shoved her towards the dressing table. She picked up a handkerchief and began, with slow, stiff movements, wiping the lady’s face. The exposed skin was slightly green.

“Sit her in a chair while you wipe that wretched mask off,” my husband shouted. In a temper he sat down at the grand piano and pounded on the keys something horrible.

“Oh yes. Oh yes!” he said. “Music. It always does what I want.”

The lady looked just like Armand’s second wife. But her eyes were not flirtatious, more like hollows in the face of an eyeless doll. Still, actress to the core, she smiled.
I had no words, no concept for what I saw, but I was jealous as a hornet.

Mistresses! They are his mistresses. Made up to look like his dead wives! I shrieked to myself, Ohhhh!

My stomach heaving, I raced on silent feet down a passage praying it led out to a garden. to fresh sea air, free of the sickening under-smell of tuberose.

I arrived at another pergola-covered stairway winding precariously up to the top floor of the house. The way back down was blocked by Jean del Jean, ticking into the room I’d just left, so I had no choice but to ascend.

I barged through a mossy blue door into a dark entryway. An exceedingly tall black man with wide, staring eyes loomed up to stop me going in.

“I am Madame de Rais,” I said, breathlessly. “You must let me pass.”

His swerved and stepped stiffly aside.

take this

As I hurried along the ruined passageway, I met another such person, another and another, each blindly attempting to block me. My name got me through, but their thick, shuffling steps came after me in the dark. Dreading what I would see if I looked back, I blundered into a room filled with white flowers.

A woman stood with her back to me. Her blonde head hung forward, her chemise was loose, exposing greenish-purple skin. A slave covered her with a dressing gown, guided her bruised arms into the sleeves like a doll. I fell back, covering my mouth, but not fast enough to stifle a shriek. The slave looked straight at me.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” she said. “Come in and meet Madame de Rais.”

“What?” I blurted, remaining firmly outside the door. “You are mistaken. I am Madame de Rais.”

“Oh, the new wife. Here is a little gift for you. It once belonged to Madame Yvanna, but she no longer wears it.” The slave held out a marvelous ring.

Helpless in my weakness for baubles I stepped quickly over the threshold to accept it. The ring flashed on my finger like the devil’s eye.

The slave spoke to my rival. “You have a visitor, Madame. Meet Monsieur Armand’s new wife.”

green face

Yvanna turned towards me. The once beautiful face was chalky and sunken, the eyes dead, but blazing.

“What is she?” I cried.

The slave got a jar of face paint and began applying it to the rotting skin. Suddenly, footsteps echoed in the passage.

Armand!

My heart faltering in my chest, I hid behind the bed curtains and gripped the bedpost, reeling.

He burst in.

“What is this?” he shouted.

“I did not have time to finish Monsieur.”

“She’s too far gone. Aren’t you Yvanna? Well, for old times sake.”

With a hog-like grunt, Armand pushed Yvanna onto the bed. I shut my eyes, and my ears. I did not want to know him any more.

*

Drums beat that night. A coffin was loaded onto a wagon, no doubt containing the corpse of Madame Yvanna. Torches were lit along the road beyond the gate, guiding it into utter darkness.

I shuddered. Was she living? Was she dead? Would I someday share her fate?
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At last I received a letter from Mamma, thanking me for the money I’d sent to pay for her passage to Iaiti.

My joy was interrupted when Armand blustered in, followed by three steamer trunks. He rushed towards me, scooped me up, and kissed me like a loving husband who’d missed me. I avoided his lips, froze in his grasp. I couldn’t stand the sight of him.

He stood back, took out a little brown cigar, and struck a match. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

I tried to get past him, but he grabbed my arm.

“Have you been snooping my little love? I hope not. It could ruin everything.”

His breath was hot on my neck.

“You left me alone too long,” I said.

“Oh, you’re angry. Go rest then. I shall see you at dinner wearing that ruby choker.” He released me and went out, shouting for Jean del Jean.

I wandered out to my balcony to look at the sea and prayed for Mamma to come quickly. The sun was almost down, and not a ship in sight.

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I put on the white frock, and the rubies, adding eardrops of the same lurid gem. I hid my rosary in a handkerchief and went downstairs to dine.

Jean del Jean was standing in the hallway beside the grandfather clock, grinning broadly. As the clock chimed the hour, he mimed a winding motion. Suddenly, as if turned by millions of unseen hands, every automaton in the house began ticking.

Armand’s voice boomed from the dining room.

“Are you coming?”

I went.

All the chairs along the sides of the table were filled by automatons. I sat down as if they were vipers, and glared at my husband.

“What do you think? Aren’t they marvelous?”

“Why do you collect these things?” I asked.

“Because they’re always beautiful, they stay where I put them, and they never, ever speak,” he said.

“They’re frightening,” I said.

“Stop talking back,” he shouted. “I am the only one with the right to feel things. It is your role to look good and shut up!”

I clutched my hidden rosary and stared at the wooden puppets clacking their forks on the their empty plates and lifting them to their painted mouths, empty.

“You’re supposed to last longer,” he spat. “Being young.”

I had no idea what he meant and didn’t want to know.

“Eat. Drink your wine. I’m not leaving until you clean your plate,” he said. He stabbed his pork with a long, pointed knife and put into his mouth.

I ate slowly, painfully aware of several empty elixir bottles lying on the tablecloth. Gingerly, I sipped my wine. Overcome with drowsiness, I couldn’t speak for the ticking in my head.

Tiring of me, Armand growled upright, and called Jean del Jean.

“Take these wonders away. My wife has no appreciation for art. I’ve had enough. Good night, Madame.”

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It was too hot to sleep. The piano was too loud. My sheet wound round me so tightly I couldn’t move. Full moonlight brightened the curtains blowing in the open windows. Singing, drumming rose up from the crossroads below the cliff. I sat up, anxious. Where was Mamma? The blast of a horn echoed up from the harbor. Was a ship coming in at last?

I raced on my dressing gown and hurried into the ticking depths of the house. All of the doors were wide open to the drums.

In the forecourt, stood a woman in a black gown, her dark hair wild in the breeze. She turned as if she sensed me. Her face was a white skull.

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I screamed down the passage past the cabinets where the automatons moved, clattering, ticking, playing their stilted tunes. It seemed I dreamed as I glided along, guided by an unseen hand towards a cabinet displaying a new automaton.

Lying on an ivory couch, propped on one elbow, one long-lashed, mechanical eye winking, was the spitting portrait of myself wearing only the ruby choker.

I ran outside, through the garden, and heedless of my bare feet, stumbled down the cliff stairs towards the shore. The horn boomed again.

A boat was coming in!

 

A cacophonous ululation broke out above the cliff, drums pounded. I fell to my knees on the moonlit sand and could not rise. My limbs were too weak.

A heavy tread fell behind me, a reek of tuberose.

There was a loud explosion,

The ticking stopped.

The sea went black.

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It was the listing of the ship that woke me, and the cries of the gulls that seemed, in the absence of ticking, the most profound silence. My eyes opened upon lamplight against a cabin wall, the silver glint of a pistol on the bedside table, and my mother’s shadowy figure as she quickly covered a large birdcage with her shawl.

“Mamma! What happened?” I cried, reaching for her.

“Oh, Lissette! I thought you would be happy, that I’d made your dream come true, but letter after letter proved your misery. Nothing I wrote to you seemed to help.”

“But, Mamma, I did not get your letters, but one.” The one received, I realized, when Armand was away.

She stood up, walked to the corner.

The ship rocked.

Pressing her hands against the walls, she braced herself and gazed at me with bitter remorse. In the black bristles of her widow’s gown, hair thrown back in wild disarray, her dark eyes like pools in the high-boned pallor of her face, she was the woman I’d seen in the windy forecourt, the blood-avenging Tisiphone incarnate.

“I thought as much. When I received your money, I came. Arriving on the shore, I dug for information. I found things out that made my mother’s blood boil.”

The fierceness of her eyes made me jump! Vain and silly as I’d always been, I’d had no idea she loved me so much.

From a long leather scabbard behind the chair, she pulled out a sword and pointed it at the birdcage.

“Imagine my joy when I discovered that there was a price on Monsieur Armand’s head,” she said.

The briny smell of the sea gave way to the suspicious reek of tuberose. I trembled.

“What… is in the birdcage, Mamma?”

“Our fortune, my daughter. I already have a buyer. An artist, Madame Marie Tussaud of Paris.”

I could not take my eyes from the birdcage as, with the point of the sword, Mamma slowly lifted the edge of the shawl that covered it.

Through the thin, silver wires of the cage were the bloodstained edges of a blue-black beard.

birdcage

Finis

The Keys: A Gothic Re-Telling of Bluebeard with Zombies PT One

have a few stories that have been out for a few years, so I think it time to share them on this blog. I found a sweet review of this one here: https://themodestvergebookblog.wordpress.com/tag/creepy/

Thank you Modest Verge!

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*
As his dark closet shows, Bluebeard was a collector at heart,
and even after dispatching a wife, could not let her depart? ——–Shuli Barzilai

*

I was only six when Mamma and Papa first took me to the Paris Opera to see a concert by the famous pianist, Monsieur Armand Guy de Rais. The moment he arrived on the stage, tall and gorgeous, with his wild blue-black hair and dark, sparkling eyes, I was smitten. Sitting at the jaws of a glossy beast of a piano, Monsieur played with such fire that my innocent soul was branded forever with the agony of passion. Mamma recalls me shaking and spattering my dress of cameo colored silk with tears. She chided me, but I’d been so seized by the violent beauty of his music, by his long fingers flying over the keys, yet touching them with exquisite tenderness, that I did not hear her.
I was shocked when he suddenly stood up and bowed for the applause. I tugged my mother’s sleeve: Is it over? It can’t possibly be over!

Suddenly everyone was towering above me clapping and shouting Bravo! leaving me in the dark, my view of Monsieur blocked by black coat tails and voluminous gowns.
Nine years later, we had to flee Paris. The rabble had broken into the Bastille. Fear swept us all out of the city on one giant wave. Mamma and I ended up in Brittany to stay with distant cousins while Papa remained to protect his house and treasure.

Those were days of great idleness for me. Even after so many years, Monsieur Armand remained my ideal of manhood. I had little to do but wander the gardens of the manoir fancying the unbearable sensation of his long pianist’s fingers stroking my hair and unbuttoning my dress. Imagine the thrill that seized me when my cousin, Delphine, told me of a ruined castle close by that bore the name le Chateau de Rais.

“Mamma forbids us ever to go there,” she said. “For it is the abode of highwaymen and cutthroats.”

Nevertheless, I rode the donkey to the fringes of the forest and stopped at the base of a high crag. At the top was a grim guard tower scaling high above the bastion of outward leaning curtain walls of dark blue stone. Foreboding rose out of the ground, silencing the earth.

Even the birds stopped singing.

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August prowled away with terrible news. Papa had not only lost his treasure, but his head to the hateful machinery of that bloodbath, la Revolution. There was also news of Monsieur Armand. He had arrived in Paris to perform a concert, but was seized by the rabble.

Mamma, in her widow’s weeds, wrung her hands more for him than she ever had for poor Papa. Mystified by the intensity of her grief, I buzzed with jealousy.

How dare she?

I stormed about the house, stood before the mirrors for ages arranging and re-arranging my wealth of pale brown hair, reassuring myself that my mother’s worn features were no match for my own pearly skin, large blue-gray eyes, or the perfect oval of my face. I changed my gowns before the mirror that was really the eye of Monsieur Armand, like a kind of doll, posing for his imagined delectation.

Delphine only laughed at me.

I laughed back, watching myself in the mirror.

Autumn arrived. Strong winds blew leaves of fire from the trees, denuding them all too soon. Winter gales shrieked in from Siberia. News from Paris was sporadic. Mamma despaired.

Our cousins had asked us to move out once the roads cleared. Tragically, our house in Paris had not only been looted, but gutted to the edge of ruin. We would be forced to continue to impose ourselves upon others in order to survive.

Shame rose up in me like a giant green lily. I was immobilized. My mother’s eyes told me I was no longer her daughter, but a burden to be disposed of.

“Too spoiled to work,” she said. “Too lazy and self indulgent to marry down.”

In the time we had left, Mamma grew industrious. Letters flew as fast as the weather permitted back and forth to relatives, friends, acquaintances…. Finally, judging by the light in her eyes, a solution had arrived.

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I was to be married.

Never mind that the man in question was twenty-four years my senior, or that his previous wives had all died under mysterious circumstances, or that he lived very far away on his own island in the Americas. He was rich, an aristocrat, and that was all Mamma needed to know to give me away.

Nevertheless I was excited. Though his image lived in my heart as a kind of ideal, I had no hope that a paragon like Monsieur Armand would desire me, let alone become my bridegroom. It was enough to know that I would be cared for amid all the luxurious trappings I required, in a far-away, fairy tale sort of place.

Shortly after the papers were signed, gifts began to arrive: gowns, coats, jewels, lingerie—-all of the latest fashion, most exquisite taste, and, as if my betrothed had already seen me, remarkably flattering. The shipments were always accompanied by bouquets of white flowers called tuberose whose strong, sweet fragrance warmed me into a kind of sensuous trance. The petals were always slightly brown at the edges for having traveled so far. Their beauty was therefore brief, but replaced so quickly by another bouquet that I had no time to mourn.

“Mamma, when will I meet my betrothed?” I asked, chafing. It was almost Spring. The roads would soon be clear, fanned by the warmer, drier winds blowing in from the Channel.

“You will take the ship to the Island of Iati. Monsieur will meet you on the dock,” said Mamma.

“I shall be alone on the ship? With all those sailors?”

“You won’t be entirely alone. Monsieur is sending a chaperone to collect you. She should be arriving in a few days. Don’t be frightened. I envy your adventure.”

“What is his name?”

Mamma’s brow creased with worry. She paced before the fire, then gave me the name as if she were under a curse for revealing it.

“Monsieur de Rais,” she said. “Monsieur Armand Guy de Rais.”

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Time passed in a dreamlike blur. Next thing I knew, my luggage and I were being loaded into a carriage bound for St. Malo.

I waved goodbye to our cousins, kissed Mamma. I recall the constant shaking and jarring of the coach and my soggy handkerchief. I don’t know why I was crying except that I was shattered through and through knowing I was to be married to him.

It seemed forever before we stopped under the shadow of a passenger ship that loomed like a giant whale in the dock. Waiting for me was a small woman in a neat black coat. Black as night she was, and silent. When she saw me she smiled, made the sign of the cross, then, quick as serpent’s tongue, pressed a small gift into my hand.
It was an exquisitely cut crystal bottle with a silver stopper.

She gestured that I drink it.

Thinking it a welcoming custom of the New World, I drank the burning liquid down. Her gladness towards me lightened my heart. It was with great anticipation that I followed her onto the ship.

The ocean was sickeningly tumultuous, but the blustering winds filled the sails and sped the ship along. Quickly, quickly, I thought. You cannot sail quickly enough!

My chaperone was always with me, quiet as my shadow. Only once did she speak. Pointing to a dark mass of hills on the horizon, she smiled and shouted, “Iaiti! Iaiti! Home.”\

ss Great Britain, Halloween. 31 October 2015

Dressed in fine white linen, my hat wreathed with chiffon, I felt quite the young bride-to-be as I disembarked. It was wild place. Hill rose upon dark hill thick with trees and hot jungle flowers. My companion and I walked down the pier to meet an ancient cabriolet with two white horses waiting in the mud. The driver, black as my chaperone, lifted his hat and smiled in greeting. Where was my betrothed? As the cabriolet pulled off and climbed a steep, winding lane into the dusky woods, I could not help fearing what was in store for me in that foreign place.

At the top of the cliff, the ground leveled. We passed through a graveyard of stately tombs brightened with blue lamps. Fires burned along the paths. The sound of cicadas filled the air, surf crisping against the shore, and the faint, hollow heartbeat of drums.
By the time we drove through the high gate and stopped in the forecourt of the villa, all lit up for my arrival, my gloved, sweaty hand was clutching that of my dark companion. The first sight of my beloved was a great shadow looming in the lighted doorway.

His voice boomed as I stepped out of the carriage. “So, you have arrived in one piece, Lissette.”

I froze. He was not at all as I remembered him. He’d grown portly with age and over the fine, chiseled features of his face was a full blue-black beard. But the eyes were his; no one could mistake them, dark and shining with wit and charm. I stumbled toward him with arms outstretched as if I were pleading for my life, smiling as if such a mask could fool him.

He laughed.

“O, my little child so far away from home. Come inside,” he said.

His embrace was firm. The great bulk, smoothed by his silk dressing gown, was cool. Yet as I held him, I recalled the young, handsome version I had carried in my heart for ten years, and felt deeply the pangs of first love.

He regaled me with a feast of spiced meats, aubergines, oysters, and sweet cakes glazed with strange fruits. I was quickly drunk, not only on wine, but on the heady fragrance of tuberose. Armand grinned as if he expected me to become silly, but I was not. Rather I felt languid, cat-like, relaxing into my velvet skin, soaking up rich flavors and perfumes through my every pore.

Debussy

I woke in a rumpled bed, wrapped in white sheets spotted with blood. I had no memory of pain, but of exquisite tortures carried to crisis on the last, passionate crescendos of Liszt.

Of course I was alone, my god-like love having fled with the sunrise. Though I saw no timepiece nearby, the entire house was filled with a noise like hundreds of clocks ticking. Dismayed at my bloodstained nakedness, I drew on the beautiful dressing gown that lay in wait for me at the end of the bed.

I was about to go to the door when it burst open. A monkey came racing across the floor, whizzing and spinning around with the most awful racket. When it came at me, I screamed.

Armand entered, laughing.

“Oh, my little love, you’re so amusing. It’s only a toy. Vivienne has drawn a bath for you. I want you to look exquisite for breakfast. Wear the ruby choker. Scarlet suits you so well.”

He indicated the pool of liquid jewels on my dressing table.

“Red jewels around the neck are all the rage in Paris these days,” he said.*

RUBY Vivienne, a lovely half-caste girl, crossed herself when she saw me, drawing my attention to an ornate silver Crucifix hanging over her bosom. After my bath, she got me all tricked out in a creamy silk sheath with brown edges, my hair up in waves with a sprig of tuberose, and the choker like a bloody gash around my neck.

“Vivienne, when are we to be married, Armand and I?” I asked.

“Why, today, Mademoiselle,” she said. “Why do you think you’re all dressed up? Here, let me show you your veil.”

Vivienne went to the wardrobe and pulled out a mile of sheer white chiffon.
“See? We put that over your head with a crown of tuberose. You’ll look lovely, Mademoiselle.”

“Why always tuberose?” I asked.

“It’s Monsieur’s favorite.”

The house reeked of it.

“I should like real roses,” I said. “Red roses to go with my jewels.”

Vivienne wrapped the veil up silently.

“And what is that constant ticking sound?” I asked. “Doesn’t it drive you mad?”

“It’s Monsieur’s collection,” she said. “Perhaps Jean del Jean will show it to you.”

As if he’d been summoned, a wizened little black man appeared at the door. With a short bow, he held out his large, square hand, offering to escort me.

“Your new home, Mademoiselle,” he said, crossing himself as he took my hand. He too wore a heavy silver Crucifix.

AT LAST CORRIDOR

There was a long passage lined with cabinets, and behind the glass, moving in mechanical rhythm to their ticking, were hundreds of automatons. Beautiful wax heads, long necks, blinking glass eyes—-all women. Some danced, others played musical instruments, mechanical parodies of melody.

“They’re like music boxes,” I said. “Ingenious!”

Jean del Jean smiled and bowed with a flourish towards the cabinets. A few china dolls were mixed in, eyes staring wide in their frozen faces like the dead. Jean del Jean held up a long black key and opened one of the doors. Out came a large doll with a powdered wig and beauty spots, wearing a choker of rubies like my own.

“Le Reine Marie,” Jean del Jean said. He laughed as he grasped the key in her back and wound her up. The jaw moved and emitted a mechanical voice.

Permettez-eux de manger le gâteau.

“Let them eat cake!” I laughed at the infamous phrase.

The figure’s head spun round and round, unscrewing up the length of its neck, ticking louder until it popped off. Jean del Jean caught it in his hand as a stream of red ribbons spewed out of the neck cavity. He held the small head out to me laughing uproariously.
I recoiled.

marie doll

He was waiting for me at the gleaming breakfast table dressed in a black tailcoat and impeccable white cravat. He stood up as I, ungracefully hindered by the soft, clinging layers of my skirt, approached. His smile faded. His eyes clouded darkly.

I must have registered fright, for, as we sat down, his smile lit up again. Like a dog, I smiled back, hating my clumsiness.

“Bon appétit, my love.” He raised his glass of wine to me. I mirrored his gesture. I’d never drunk wine with breakfast before, but it did calm me. “Eat your croissant and peaches for now, then we shall repair to the garden to be married.” There was a little present beside my plate, tied with a red ribbon.

“Open it my love. It is from my private collection.”

It was an ivory box, about the length of my hand. With a turn of a little key, the lid opened. Inside was an ivory lady lying on an ivory couch, propped on one elbow, and completely nude. I gasped.

“A gift from the Orient,” Armand said. “From a bordello in Shanghai.”
I closed the box, blushing.

“Thank you,” I said. “Who is coming? Are there guests?” I felt sharply alone. Would Mamma completely forget about me?

“It is a shame your mother did not come with you, but you have me now.”

I nodded. The wine sprang to my head. A veil fell over my eyes. Someone helped me up. I was soon on Armand’s arm standing in a garden of bright flowers before a black priest. A ring was on my hand, but I had no ring for Armand. I was about to ask for it, when my husband grabbed me and fastened his lips on mine. Waves of fire rippled through me so hot, I fainted.

My sinuses stung by smelling salts, I awoke sitting at the end of a banqueting table. Through the fiery glow of a silver candelabrum I saw a frilly wedding cake, vases of tuberose and, so far away I could hardly see him, was my great love, now my husband, Armand.

There were guests, all artistes, glittering and posing like actors on a stage. Holding me tightly, Armand introduced me. I tried to make it a happy occasion. Shouldn’t all weddings be happy?

Soon the sun was going down, cicadas sang, the house ticked.
He went to the piano and opened the keys. The artistes draped their loose-limbed bodies around it in worship.

As he played I was six years old again, spilling fiery tears over my gown.

blue wedding

“Well, my little love, that was lovely.” Armand threw his cufflinks on the dressing table. “I have been called away. I’m leaving in the morning…”

“But, we have just been married!” I protested.

“It can’t be helped. While I am away, you must confine yourself to this suite of rooms. This house is very old. It isn’t safe to wander the upper rooms. They’ve been walled off for decades.”

“How long will you be away?” I asked.

He raised one eyebrow. “As long as it takes.”

In one movement he’d thrown off his coat and trousers and pinned me down on the bed. I was delirious! I gave myself up to him completely, hoping, in my heart, that that would be enough to make him stay.

It wasn’t. Despite my pleading, he left me.

.“He doesn’t love me,” I sobbed.

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