“I don’t want to marry him.” Laura threw a slipper at the wall. “He’s ugly and old and he’s been married thirty times and lives in this creepy house on the edge of the creepy woods and he dyes his beard blue. Blue.” She fell back on the wide soft goose down tick.
Carmilla, who did not find the woods or the house especially creepy, said, “So don’t marry him.” Carmilla pulled free a goose feather that had escaped the soft linen and blew it into the air. The feather floated until it disappeared from view. Camilla brushed a strand of her long black hair idly along the branched blue line of a vein in Laura’s right arm. “Tell your mother and your sister that you won’t marry him and then we can leave his house. Go back to your mother’s home in town.” She twisted the strands right and left between her fingers. Twirled them in the hollow of Laura‘s elbow. “Then we could have some privacy.”
Laura pushed back her ash blond hair that fallen out of its bun to make for freedom across her shoulders. She looked at her very dear friend. She opened her mouth to say something. However, her older sister, Anne, as always, was in the door way. “Laura, Carmilla, you have to see this. Mr. Bluebeard has arranged for fireworks!”
Laura sighed and widened her blue eyes. She said, “Fireworks!”
Carmilla raised her eyebrows in her smooth clear brow and said, “Fireworks.” She gestured grandly to the door. “Fireworks.”
Laura snorted and fell back on the bed. Belly laughed and kicked her feet against the coverlet
Anne shook her head. “You two think you’re so funny. But you’re not. Now come on and see the fireworks.”
Laura sat up and imprisoned her hair. Put on her shawl, because it was cold outside. Carmilla did not bother. She never felt the cold. Laura whispered to Carmilla, “This is probably when he’ll propose.”
Carmilla put her arm around Laura’s shoulders like a draped vine. “It is likely.”
Laura sighed. “He’s rich and he can arrange for my brothers to be stationed at home and can put my sister in the path of rich husbands and he is rich.”
Carmilla straightened the shawl around Laura’s shoulders. A soft brush of her fingers down the line of Laura’s throat. “This is true.”
Laura swallowed and pulled away from Carmilla. She followed her sister down the steep dark stairs. Carmilla stayed behind. Unmoved. She contemplated her shadow in the light of the oil lamp. Bluebeard’s house being too far from town to be fitted for gas light. Her shadow crouched on the wall. Sharp like a cat in a crib. She went to go see the fireworks. By the time she had come down, they were largely exploded and Laura was engaged to the man with the bluebeard, who owned this great wealthy house on the edge of the dark forest. So far from the homes in town.
Carmilla smiled at them. A sweet turn of her soft pale lips. She went to the dinner of celebration and sat opposite Bluebeard at the feast. She sipped her wine slowly. She did all things slowly. Softly. As if in a dream. But in such a way that all eyes were pulled to her movements.
Except for Bluebeard, who only had eyes for Laura.
Except for Laura, who stared straight down at her plate of gold with its serving of roasted beef. The rich red sauce a meandering stream on the white of the potatoes. Untouched even to the asparagus spears splashed with strings of white sauce.
Under the table, it was not so wide that Carmilla could not brush her slippered foot against the side of Laura’s leg. A soft touch. Laura glanced up and Carmilla said, “I think that I should stay with Laura after the wedding.” She tilted her head. “So she is not so lonely in a new place and with a new husband.”
Anne snorted next to her mother and muttered something about leaches. Something uncomplimentary, which was fair because Carmilla was the sort of friend who showed up when her carriage crashed by their gate, was abandoned by her mother, who had business elsewhere, and then would not leave.
Bluebeard looked at Carmilla then. “That is certainly…” Carmilla waited to see if he could manage the word kind or thoughtful or would go with impertinent, but he said, “an idea.”
Carmilla sipped her wine. She didn’t say anything. She brushed the tip of her foot along the inside of Laura’s leg.
Laura said, “Yes. Yes. I would like that very much.”
Anne rolled her eyes, but did not say anything else. Mainly because her mother gave her a quick glared glance.
So it was that Bluebeard married Laura. The bride wore a dress of cloth of gold and was very beautiful. Bluebeard freshly oiled and curled his bright indigo blue beard and wore a brocade suit to match. Anne and her mother cried great fat tears. All the guests were moved, so tenderly did Bluebeard take Laura’s hand. So beautiful was the ceremony in the old church behind the great house by the deep woods.
Carmilla was unable to attend the service, being somewhat ill that day. As well, she never got up before noon.
She attended the wedding supper though. She sat on the other side of the bride and whispered soft slow words in her ear until Bluebeard took Laura up to his chambers at the top of the house. To the room that was the last door on that hall, but for one farther door. The final door was always locked.
Long after the last guest had gone to bed, Carmilla sat alone in the great hall. The golden plates long since cleaned away. She looked at her sharp shadows and smiled at the paintings of long dead men and women in their stiff velvets and silver lace on the walls. She sat outside the master chamber and she listened with her head cocked to one side. She sat in front of the locked door and if she leaned close enough to the iron lock to lick, she had always seemed to Anne a very odd girl.
Anne was asleep in her bed and did not see. The servants neither. They slept in a little house set aside for them up the road that led into the estate.
They all slept.
Carmilla went outside. She took off her slippers and walked barefoot in the grass and loam of the woods. Brushed her hands along the tops of ancient ferns that brushed her face. She walked a long time there. She took neither the well traveled path, nor the narrow hardly trod one. She walked a path of her own make and returned much refreshed from her travels.
The next morning, Laura did not have much to say at her wedding breakfast. Her cheeks were pale of color.
Bluebeard’s cheeks were flushed next to his oiled and combed blue beard. He boomed. He laughed. He joked. He did small magic tricks with a coin. For Bluebeard was something of a magician.
Laura looked all around the table, but Carmilla was not there as it was long before noon.
As soon as she could, when the men went with their guns into her husband’s wide woods, Laura crept into Carmilla’s room. She lay down next to her friend on top of the velvet coverlet. In the dim, she fell asleep.
As they slept, Carmilla took hold of Laura’s hand as a vine might do on a brick wall.
Within a week, all the wedding guests left. All the well wishers from the town. Laura’s mother and her sister to their home. Dinners then were just Bluebeard and his bride. And Carmilla. Who smiled and listened to any story that Bluebeard might have to tell. She was very attentive. She sat across from Bluebeard and his bride. His hand on Laura’s. He frequently raised their joint hands for a kiss.
Carmilla smiled softly. A little dreamy. While under the table, Carmilla brushed a toe back and forth along the arch of Laura’s foot or along the line of her calf or once even higher. Laura breathed quicker then. Flushed. Laughed at Bluebeard’s jokes and seemed almost happy. Almost. Until it was time for desert plates to be put away and the last of the sherry or port or lingered over brandy was drunk.
Pale then, she left on Bluebeard’s arm for their marriage bed in the master chamber one room down from the closet that was always locked.
Carmilla wandered the house while they slept. She smiled at the paintings of the long dead men and women in their stiff velvet and hard lace. She listened to the great wooden clocks on the walls as they struck down the hours of the night one by one. She walked barefoot in the woods. Even after the year turned to snow.
Some weeks after their wedding, Bluebeard said to Laura, and Carmilla since she was there at dinner too, “I have to leave for six weeks.” He held up a great brass ring of keys. He picked out three large gold keys. “These go to the pantries where I keep my silver and gold plate.” He held up four large silver keys. “These open the safes where I keep all my wealth and jewels.” He held up a brass key. “This is the master-key for my house.” He held up a small iron key. “This however, goes to the small closet past our room, where you must never go lest I become very angry with you and am forced to act upon that anger.”
He handed the keys to Laura. They were very heavy and weighed down her arm. Laura nodded. “Thank you, husband.”
He kissed her cheek and then her lips. All exuberance. And he was gone. For it seemed his journey required that he start right away. So eager was he to go.
Laura held the ring of keys in her hands. She flipped the keys around the ring one after the other. Carmilla sipped her wine and said, “How nice. Now we can be alone.” She smiled her soft smile and looked up at Laura through her eyelashes.
Laura swallowed and nodded. That night, she did not wait for desert to be cleared away to seek out her bedchamber. She held the ring of keys firmly in her hand. Carmilla walked with her. Her fingers twined with Laura’s, as friends sometimes do.
Not much was heard from the house by the forest for all the weeks that Bluebeard was away. Not just six, but seven weeks. He returned slowly one day. He stood in front of the house and looked up at the row of windows where his bedroom faced the forest.
Carmilla met him at the door as he returned. Her cheeks flushed and her lips a deep dark red. She held the key ring in her hands. She held it out to him. She said, “I was about to send for you.”
He stopped. Startled by Carmilla, who he had never really looked at. By the key ring in her hand. All the keys that glittered on it. Each in their place. Clean and bright in the sun. He said, “Where is Laura?”
Carmilla brushed her hand along his arm. A soft slow touch. Like a vine. “She grew ill shortly after you left.” Carmilla looked down. In grief, she turned her head into Bluebeard’s shoulder. “She died.”
Bluebeard stood there in his doorway. Rather awkwardly it must have seemed and patted her shoulder. The next day, they placed Laura, pale and still, in the crypt behind the great house. Bluebeard stroked his oiled beard and seemed quite at a loss to bury a bride so young. All his other brides had been buried abroad or some such thing. As they had come for the wedding, so the guests came for the funeral. Fat tears rolled down their faces. They ate on the plates of gold and Carmilla sat across from Bluebeard at the table and moved as slowly as ever. Her movements such that all eyes drew to her. Now that he looked, Bluebeard’s eyes were drawn too.
He listened as Carmilla said softly, a whisper really, “I have no other place to go in the world. What shall I do? Can I stay here?”
He said then, in his great booming hearty way, “You cannot stay here as an unmarried woman.” He leaned across the table and took her slim hands in his. “It’s soon, I know, but we will have to be married. It is for your own good.”
Carmilla smiled at him. Her lips red and full. “Yes, I think you’re right.”
After the funeral guests had left, they were married outside. For as Carmilla said, “I follow the old customs.” There was no minister for as Carmilla said, “It would be same minister who buried my friend.” The chief justice of the town married them. His eyes round for the bag of gold Bluebeard gave him from his coat. A bare two witnesses unknown to either of them.
That night, they went to their marriage bed. For as Bluebeard said, “How else can we be said to be married.” Carmilla gave him her hand to pull and they laid down together on a great wide bed with a goose down tick and a velvet coverlet.
If after he fell into sleep, Carmilla slipped from that bed, she had always wandered at night. If she watched Bluebeard as he lay sprawled across the bed and every available space, she was his wife then. There was nothing in her look other than calm. If as she looked at him, the coverlet fell down to expose the wide breadth of his chest. If she watched the slow rise and fall as he breathed in air. As his heart beat. If she softly kissed his throat. If she licked the line of his pulse. She was his wife.
If she walked about the great house as she had before, she had always been nocturnal. If she sometimes slipped outside and walked barefoot in the snow sharp woods, she had always been strange. Marriage to Bluebeard would not make her less so.
Bluebeard never woke up during these times and if he was less than satisfied with a wife who was never awake for breakfast, she was always awake for dinner.
Some weeks later, as before, Bluebeard said, “I have urgent business and must be gone.”
Carmilla took the keys from him and listened to the same speech as he had given Laura. She smiled at him softly and kissed his lips as a limpet might do as would he rush away. She sat at the table. All alone and spun the keys around the ring as a nun might clack the beads of her rosary. Except, not like a nun at all. After some time, she stopped on the iron key and said, “Hmm.”
She went to the closet where Bluebeard had told her, and Laura before her, that they absolutely must never go. She put the key in the door and opened it. What lay inside was not a closet, but a charnel house of wet flesh hung from gibbets and twisted chains. The bodies of women in various states of decay sprawled on iron spikes or stretched on racks. There was even an iron maiden that radiated out trails of ever pooled blood like a sun. If the sun were a rusted bloody iron maiden.
Carmilla said, “I had no idea that he had been married that many times.” She frowned at the iron maiden. She hadn’t seen one in an age and a half. She put down the key ring on a table, covered in tacky blood, and examined the dead body of a blond girl with wide blue eyes. She looked nothing like Laura, but Carmilla supposed that Bluebeard had just had to make do.
There was a loud noise at the door. Bluebeard bristled there. “I told you never to come in here. You’ve betrayed me and now I’ll have to kill you.”
Carmilla sighed and bent down to lick delicately at the stale blood on the table. She grimaced at the taste. It had been enchanted to stay wet. Not fresh enough for Carmilla though. She looked at him thoughtfully. “I don’t think so.”
He held up a double headed axe.
She sighed again said, “I suppose I should beg for my life. Perhaps I should pray.” Her lips lingered on the last syllable of the word pray. She traced an idle shape in the blood on the table. She smiled at him. A cool and calm smile in her pale serious face. “You made it last for the others. Don’t you love me?” He swung the axe at her, but she wasn’t there. It wasn’t that she’d moved. Carmilla didn’t move that fast. She was just elsewhere. She shook her head and her long loose black hair swayed like a vine. “That really is quite a blow.”
She took the axe then from him like one takes candy from a baby, which is to say quickly before the child knows what has happened. She threw the axe into a wall. Given the visceral décor, it severed someone’s something. She was not watching. Her eyes were for no one but her husband. She took his face in her hands and kissed him deeply. In that moment, she was less of a young woman and more of a cat-fiend creature with great paws and claws and teeth, which if he’d followed her into the woods, he might have known. But he’d never been awake to do so.
He struggled at first. Great thrashed blows that meant nothing to her. She wrapped herself around him. She kissed him deeper still. When he was quieter, she let go. He fell. Pale and limp to the floor with a wet smack.
She stared at him quietly. Steps thumped up the stairs. “Carmilla!” Laura glared at Carmilla. “You were supposed to wait for me. You said that I could kill him.”
Carmilla blushed then, embarrassed. She looked up at Laura through her lashes. “I’m sorry.” She took Laura’s hands in hers. “Please say you’ll forgive me. I got,” she bit her lower lip, hard enough to draw blood, “carried away.” She traced her hands along Laura’s shoulders. “Please. I’m sorry. Forgive me.”
Laura sighed into her then. Kissed the blood from her lips. Until she licked her own lips. Kicked Bluebeard for good measure. She waved a hand at Bluebeard. “He’s not going to,” she waved a hand to herself.
Carmilla gave her a wounded look. “I would never.” She brushed away at some pine needles that had made their way into Laura’s burial shroud. “Only people I really like.”
“Oh. Good.” Laura looked around the room. “It’s not as nice as the crypt. Not as nice as the master chamber.” She stopped and looked at Carmilla. “Which of us is his rich widow?”
Carmilla quietly counted the various bodies around the room and said, “Under the circumstances, I think we both are.” They considered this.
There was nothing for it, but to go to bed.
They didn’t wake up from their wide bed with the goose down tick until the far side of noon. Their hands pleated together like vines on a brick wall.