It feels like she prays ceaselessly. For her husband, sometimes so close to her and other times so far she wonders how to reach them, for their son, gone before his time, and the one that grows in her belly, more each day. Sometimes there are words; requests for health and long life and an easy delivery, repeated until the words have lost their meaning. Other times she weeps so pitifully and endlessly that her husband interrupts her, gently wresting her votive from her hands and pulling her to him. "Leave it be, darling."
"I have to, I have to, I have to, I have to..." The words get lost in her sobs, and he holds her tighter, so tightly she feels as though she may break into shards.
Her tears finally end, and she lays against him, boneless and wrung out. "If you need the medicine, why will you not take it?" he asks.
"The doctor said not while the baby's inside."
"The doctor said once in awhile when you have need of it would not harm him."
She knew that, but she wasn't going to take the chance. He sighs, and lays his head in the spot where her neck met her shoulder. "He will come, healthy and whole. You will see."
Macduff is a gregarious man, so much so that she often finds herself wondering why he chose her. Other women would have complemented him better, making friends wherever she went -- and she tries, but her natural shyness will not be overcome for long.
"I am tired," she tells him, even as she reluctantly dresses for the party at the Macbeths' estate. It's not exactly a lie, she's seven months pregnant and feels more exhausted than she did before her nap this afternoon. "You will have a much better time without me."
"Nonsense," he tells her, catching her eye in the vanity mirror as he ties his bow tie. "It's been ages since we've seen some of these people, and with the baby coming it may be awhile yet. This is a celebration for the whole country, not just the usual Macbeth affair. Think how it will seem -- "
"Oh, I know," she sighs, and sits heavily. She knows the victory in war, presence of King Duncan, and new titles bestowed not just on Lord Macbeth but the prince, Malcolm, will make tonight an exceptionally grand affair. The baby kicks her firmly, and while it's uncomfortable it also gives her hope.
He approaches her from behind, and bends down to kiss her cheek, ear, then neck. "I will be with you all night," he tells her quietly.
"I know." She smiles at his reflection in the mirror, and lifts her necklace. "Make yourself useful, while you're back there?" she asks playfully.
He smirks at her teasing manner, and with one last kiss fastens the jewels about her neck.
The ballroom at the hotel is sumptuously decorated, and as ever she sees the supercilious look Lady Macbeth gives her, a grand woman who seems tall even though she barely comes to Lady Macduff's chin. She oohs and aahs over how she is glowing in the final stages of pregnancy and how flattering her dress is, and she thanks her as she kisses her on the cheek. The next guests arrive, however, and the hostess moves on, and leaves her and her husband adrift. "Worst is over," he teases her gently. "Dance?"
They dance to the band, happily but only for a short time, and then it is more people to say hello to. She curtsies to the king, who kisses her on both cheeks, and again to Malcolm who kisses her hand gallantly. "You have lost your husband somewhere, Lady?"
"Ah, Malcolm," Duncan chides him with a smile. "No woman so lovely need ever fear such a thing."
Her cheeks flush red -- it is rather warm in here, but there is modesty in that blush too. "Thank you, your Grace," she says, "my husband has many friends here, and it seems as though each wants to tell him the story of his life since they have last seen one another."
The king laughs, a great, unrestrained sound that fills the hall. "I do know the feeling," he declares. "Please save me a dance, Lady. I will collect it shortly."
"I would be honored," she replies graciously, and the king and his son move on. She gravitates towards the edge of the room, seeing no one of her acquaintance to cleave too.
Lady Macduff soon finds herself overheated in the ballroom. She asks one of the serving girls about water, as there is a wide variety of wine, champagne, and liquor to be had but she can find no water. She promises to run and check, leaving Lady Macduff on the floor.
A man asks for a dance, and powerless to refuse she takes his hand. He lifts her high in the air, this peculiar and almost feral person. She had not been afraid before, but he set her teeth on edge and her hair on end. The room is still spinning when he sets her down, but doesn't release her. His hand caresses her swollen belly, and he glances at it almost in wonderment, as though he had never seen such a thing before. Then he looks up at her and sneers, "None of woman born shall harm Macbeth."
Her heart stops and he spins her, releasing her hand. By the time she has made it all the way around, he has disappeared into the crowd -- if he had ever been there at all. The sound of her blood rushing in her ears overcomes the band, and she feels as though she may die for want of breath. The room tilts, and she squeezes her eyes shut. On opening, she sees her husband. Not coming for her, no, dancing with another. Not unusual -- she wouldn't mind, if not for the look in the woman's eyes, and the answering one in his. Because she knows that look. It's the look he has when he is preparing to stray.
"I have your water, my lady," a servant tells her, holding the glass out in front of her. Lady Macduff doesn't answer, rather keeps her eye on her husband and the woman in the blue dress.
"Drink. You'll feel better," she cajoles further.
Don't do it. Lady Macduff accepts the glass, and drains it. This is not water. Her vision blurs, but there's a split second where she focuses on the woman who had handed her the drink. You're not the same woman I asked, she thinks, and her mouth opens but nothing comes out.
Instead, her smile is cruel and her eyes are hard and sharp, like diamonds. "Rest."
The moment between beginning to fall and hitting the floor, Lady Macduff wonders if anyone else thought to notice that their host, Macbeth, had not been present for the party at all.
She prays in her chapel, candles casting a soft glow on the small space as she prays. She finishes her Our Father, and crosses herself, before glancing down at the boy who copies her movements. She smiles, and wraps her arms around him. "Clever boy," she murmurs, and kisses his head.
He only looks up at her, and she reaches up into the jar on the altar near the bible. "Salt for protection." She wets a finger and rubs the salt and spit onto the spot behind his ear. "And always a prayer."
His look remains implacable, and the feeling in the pit of her stomach grows more worried. The face is her boy, but what's behind those eyes... is not human. His face blurs, showing her a skeletal figure of a ghoulish grin and empty, black sockets where his darling blue eyes normally show.
She gasps, the dread overtaking her entire body. "You are not he," she pronounces, and throws him out of the chapel, slamming the door behind him.
Lady Macduff sits up bolt straight in bed, brow and body slick with sweat. She is in their room at the house, but does not remember how she got there. The last she remembers is the glass that wasn't water, the wicked woman, and hitting the floor.
Out of bed, she finds herself weak but able to move around, no worse off than if she had been recovering from the flu. Her husband is in his study, newspapers in front of him and the silence in the room oppressive. "The king is dead. Malcolm fled. Macbeth is named successor in his absence."
She hears the news impassively at first, merely processing, and she can't help but think that he won't quite look her in the eye. "I think I was bewitched."
He doesn't answer that, and that night she puts more pins in the candle on her vanity.
Still weakened even a week or more after the party, Lady Macduff seeks the only help that seems reasonable: the cunning man.
Mr. Fulton comes to the house while Macduff is out (while her husband is tolerant of her superstition, even he has his limits) and has to leave holy water on the threshold before he even dares entering. He listens to her concerns, nodding in certain places. Once she finishes, he sets to work from top to bottom, quietly tolerating her nervous shadowing. He examines each room for signs of witchcraft, and finds nothing until they reach their son's room, usually closed and just as it was the day he died. Except for one thing. "The bear," she whispers.
"Excuse me?" he asks, his keen eyes turning towards her for an explanation.
"His bear. It... is there in the center of the bed. We never kept it there. He always wanted it up by his head, to the one side." She is too afraid of what it not being in its usual place may mean to be upset by the reminiscence.
Whatever sets her on edge about it must strike a chord in him as well, for in the next second he has picked it up and uses a pocket knife to open the stitches at the back. "Clever bastard -- pardon the language, m'lady."
"What? What is it?"
He shows her the line of perfect stitches zigzagging over and under the seam. "Baseball stitches," he says grimly. "Used in taxidermy." He then reaches in with a handkerchief and pulls out a bone.
"Dear Lord." She crosses herself, trembling. "What is that?"
"Animal bone. Couldn't tell you what from." He carefully wraps the bone in the handkerchief as though it were a bomb ready to go off at the slightest disturbance and replaces it in his front jacket pocket. "I'll dispose of it for you, safely. That may be the source of your trouble. But I'll check the rest of the house, just in case."
Thankfully, he finds nothing more, and sets her up handsomely. "You must turn all the mirrors around or cover them. And take these -- hex bags," he explains, handing over four small, red bags. "Filled with rock salt, a crucifix, and a blessing. Put them in the four corners of the house, or bury them on the corners of the property if you'd rather. Should keep most things away." Then he takes a small gold charm strung on a red thread, and lifts it over her head. "Wear it always, for protection."
She nods solemnly, and tries to pay him. He refuses to take it, instead wishes her a good day, dons his heavy black overcoat, and heads back to Gallow Green.
Although her mind rests easy for a short time, it does not last long. Her dreams -- nightmares, rather, become more frequent, disturbing her sleep and even her waking hours as they linger near her, like the smell of cigarette smoke long after the cigarette itself has been spent. Nightmares, where a man she has never met looks at her with such mocking pity as he names Banquo traitor (Banquo is found dead shortly thereafter, and she prays for three days after, eating and sleeping only when her husband begs her to) and apologizes. In another, her husband dances with countless women, never even so much as glances in her direction (but the women do, oh yes, and they do it with knowing looks). The worst of all shows her such depravity, three witches blessed by Hecate dance naked, present a squirming infant, still bloody from delivery, to Macbeth. The eeriest is the one with no one present, but the trees move. It's so unnatural she only shudders at the memory of it as a chill envelopes her.
The summons comes in the guise of an invitation to the McKittrick, for a celebratory banquet. "No," she responds flatly.
Her husband blinks at her. "No?"
"No, I will not go," she specifies. She is tired and worries constantly, not only about who would try to curse them, but how they would get into their home, and about what this worry does for the child. Her sleep is interrupted, she has no appetite, and sees herself grow more drawn.
"This is a state dinner, don't you think it will seem -- "
"No, I do not and I care not." Her nerves are frayed, almost to falling away completely. She turns to her vanity, where her candle has been burning all evening. "I am near my time, no one will think it unusual, or take offense, or even miss me."
He approaches her from behind, and she wants to push him away, scream don't touch me, but his hands have a comforting weight to them, first resting on her shoulders and then running the length of her arms and coming to rest on her stomach. "I will miss you," he tells her softly.
She makes herself be unmoved. "Will you," she responds coldly, her frosty look catching his gaze in the mirror. Even though she will never say it out loud, because she is a woman of good breeding, whatever else she may be, her look lets him know she sees his wandering eye. He at least has the grace to look ashamed, although that does not change the past or what he is wont to do.
He releases her, but does not move right away. "Always," he says in a tone that could bend steel. She looks away first, at the burning flame of the candle. "Stay, or go. It matters not. I will make your apologies." He leaves her then, and she flinches when she hears the door to his study slam shut.
She puts more pins in her candle, just in case.
He leaves early the next morning, for the affair at the McKittrick promised a weekend of celebration that will last well into Sunday evening. He departs without a goodbye, and it leaves her feeling unexpectedly empty. Even the movements of the child in her womb does nothing to lift her spirits. She decides she will surprise him at the hotel, make amends, and make an appearance at least for the important event. After all, if they will be staying in the hotel, there is no reason she cannot simply rest at all other times.
It is well into the evening by the time she arrives, and the lobby is strangely deserted. They're likely all dressing for supper, she reasons.
She approaches the desk, and the porter, a young, shifty looking man with a look she doesn't quite like says, "I'll ring up to your husband right away," he says, a shade too eager. "Why don't you sit -- tea hasn't quite been cleared from the dining room, if you'd like something to nibble on. It's just back through there, m'lady."
That does sound wonderful -- just to tide her over until supper. "Thank you," she says, and makes her way across the lobby. There is something about the hotel that puts her at unease, a chill in the air or a fragrance that puts her in mind of dead things.
The dining room is small compared to the ballroom, but it is not meant to accommodate hundreds of people the way that is meant to, only those travelers who stop for a quick bite before leaving the hotel. There is toast and tea still on one table, where she sits. The tea is cold but is delicious on her parched throat, and she swallows thirstily. The toast is merely a vehicle for the jam, which is sticky and sweet.
Lady Macduff jumps up, upsetting the chair. "It -- it's you -- " The same woman who offered her the drink at the party only a month or so ago now stands in front of her another glass in her hand and the same villainous smile on her lips. "From the party."
"It holds long life for you, and for the child," she says, each word dropping on Lady Macduff's ears like the most beautiful song in the world. "Drink."
The glass nearly touches her fingers, when the woman pulls it back. She doesn't know what overcomes her, she can only describe it as an animal's instinct. She lunges for the glass, only to find it out of her grasp again. The woman backs away, enjoying this entirely too much. She's led all around the dining room, like a dog with a bone, driven insane with want. And like a dog, she licks the concoction up from a saucer that the woman pours it into with a wicked laugh.
She's gone as quickly as she appeared, and the room begins to spin once more. This is the same feeling she had before passing out at the party. Why, she curses herself. What have I done. Oh, God, what have I done...
She holds on to the walls as the room spins, and she pitches forward back into the lobby. That is all the further she can go, for her legs give out from under her, and before blackness takes her she prays, to whoever will listen, Please help me.
The ballroom is dark, the only light illuminating the long banquet table on the dais. As she approaches, she sees who her fellows at the table will be: her husband, who seems neither surprised nor particularly pleased to see her, Malcolm, long dead king Duncan, and the three witches who dance with Macbeth in her nightmares -- one is the man who danced with her at the party, the other is the one who enchanted her husband on the same night. Notably absent is their host and hostess, the Macbeths.
Then they approach the table, together, as though they were caught in the middle of a private moment, and the look they share tells her that whatever their argument has been, it is not over. Macbeth seats at one end of the table, beside her, and Lady -- the Queen -- at the other.
There is one more place, she realizes. Who for?
When Macbeth stands to offer the toast, she sees the blood that smears his face, obscuring his fine features and dripping into his beard. All the glasses automatically raise in response, even as murder shines in everyone's eyes.
Then she sees who the last chair is meant for. Banquo, also bloodied, approaches. Murdered, she knows then, as does everyone else at the table. His accusatory glance turns on Macbeth, and only then does the king's mask slip. Terror and dread are all written on his face as plainly as a child's primer. A sharp, loud sound of thunder sounds, and the dream ends.
She screams upon waking, her hair damp and neck slick with sweat. This was a mistake. You need to leave now.
She still feels ill, but she lurches to her feet and picks up her suitcase. The escape is short lived -- she turns to go, but finds the king standing in her way. Macbeth, who laughed at times with her husband, kissed her cheek, drank their wine, now stares down at her with an almost pitying look. The blood on his face only adds to his ferocity. But that was only a dream. Wasn't it? She is frozen to her place, and only manages to beg, "Please..."
He doesn't answer her, only takes the suitcase from her, gently. It only takes a second, but when her eyes flicker to the door, his look changes to a determined if resigned one. "I was told to beware Macduff," he says solemnly, and his fingers graze her belly, "and the heirs of Macduff..."
"No, please, I beg you -- " She backs away but not quickly enough. His hand is fast around her wrist, and panic rises in her throat as he swings her around, throwing her to the ground and is upon her like a crow on carrion before she can move. Her fingernails scrape the carpet as she tries to get away, but she gets no purchase from under him.
His powerful hands flip her over, and she loses all her composure, hitting, scraping, screaming, anything to keep him from his end. His long fingers wrap around her throat despite her efforts and her lashing becomes even more frantic. One hand catches him, her fingernails to his eye and he shouts. She hits him again, on the ear, and he pitches over sideways. It's almost enough to get away.
He catches enough of the back of her dress to keep her from escaping. "No, no, no, no, no..." Her words repeat, a panicked mantra that she prays may change his mind, even as she knows it will not. She sees the fury in his face as they face the mirror in their struggle, and it is someone who serves something older and worse than God or the Devil.
There is an awful, savage yell as he slammed her into the wall. She no longer hears it as separate from her own screams. Not just from the pain, from the destroyed future. Her future, true, but mostly the one that belonged to the child in her womb, and that he would now never have. Take me. Spare him. She strikes the wall again, and a third time, and a fourth. She feels things break inside her that she didn't know she had, and gasps. Her last prayer is short: Please.
He drops her to the floor, where she moves no more.