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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”\
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.
“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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
“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.