The Bridegroom by Amelia Mangan
Published 10/27/2015 | 7,079 Words
The Bridegroom is an atmospheric story of first contact and identity, and it is the first annual Halloween Tale published by Book Smugglers Publishing.
When Valentine was born, no one celebrated. No cigars were distributed, and no pats on the back were given. But a hasty phone call was placed, and a promise was made.
Now, as her eighteenth birthday approaches, Valentine’s small world of solitude and unhappiness begins to unravel–just as a powerful, catastrophic plague of death, fire, and ice sweeps across the country.
He is coming.
The child was born a girl, and that meant she was worth little enough to begin with; all the rest, as her mother would often say in years to come, just made a bad situation even worse. The birth was difficult, its result unhappy. Rain fell silently outside the walls of the mansion the day the girl was born, and no sound emerged from within. The servants did not pass around champagne to ruddy-faced well-wishers; Mother did not look pink and pleased and laugh weakly yet bravely about her rewarding ordeal; Father did not light cigars and puff his chest and talk too loudly in a way that proclaimed to all and sundry the virile specimen he had proven himself to be.
The child did not cry, as far as anyone knew. There were malformations, certain twists of flesh, that prevented her voice from being heard clearly.
Father paced the wooden boards in his stocking feet, drinking and drinking. Daisy, the maid, wound the grandfather clock. Mother sat up in bed, not watching them, not watching the crib that held the child, but watching the wall, someplace farther than the wall, someplace beyond.
“Daisy,” she said, “would you bring me the telephone, please.”
Father stopped pacing. Daisy stopped winding. They looked at Mother. Daisy dipped a curtsey and ran out into the hall.
“It’s for the best,” said Father.
“I know,” said Mother. “Oh, I know.”
Daisy brought the phone. Mother placed the call. And that was that.
The parents resolved to forget all about it, for the time being. They decided that the child really ought to be named. She was named Valentine, someone’s idea of a joke. No one could remember whose idea it was or what the joke had been or whether or not anyone had ever thought it was funny, but Valentine was the name chosen, and Valentine was the name she would wear, lightly, on her warped and misshapen shoulders, for the next eighteen years. Eighteen years of sporadic visitors entertained politely but oh-so-very briefly; eighteen years of the girl’s hair encouraged to grow over her face, never even so much as trimmed; eighteen years of mirrors discreetly removed and servants banned from dusting any potentially reflective surfaces kept around the vast country estate. Eighteen years, for Valentine, of watching seasons change from her attic bedroom, of wandering the grounds alone, getting lost in the hedge maze just for the feeling, however brief, of no one knowing where she was.
Time was nothing. A snail inching down the sharp edge of an abandoned shovel. The cold lash of frozen air right before a storm, and the hard grey clouds right after. Valentine, not permitted to see or feel her own face, did not navigate a world of touch or sight; but rather of things sensed, intuited, understood within the flesh.
So she did not mind overmuch when Barnes, the butler, would call her inside as the first drops of rain began to fall, nor when Daisy would brush her hair over her malformed face so thickly that she could not see, nor when the doorbell would ring and she was expected, without words, to limp up to the attic and hide until the visitor was gone.
Valentine understood that these things were ephemeral, transitory. She would not be angry, would not be sad. She would seat herself in the chair by her window and listen to the radio and wait for a sign of things to come.
A week before Valentine’s eighteenth birthday, as she and her mother were working in the sewing room, the telephone rang.
Mother sat very still. Valentine waited, holding the needle. She had been turning it in her fingertips, wondering if she might catch a glimpse of her own eyes. Father stood by the fireplace, staring at the phone as if he’d never seen such a thing in all his life. His cigarette burned to ash inside its holder.
“Daisy,” Mother said, her voice pressed down deep in her throat.
Daisy crept around the edge of the doorframe. Her eyes were very bright.
“No,” said Father. “I’ll do it.”
He took a step, hesitated, and answered.
“Hello.;” He listened. “Yes,” he said. “We know,” he said. “We understand,” he said.
He hung up.
Mother looked at him. Father looked at her.
“He’s coming,” he said.
Daisy sucked air between her teeth.
“Who’s coming?” asked Valentine. As usual, her parents didn’t understand her.
“When?” asked Mother.
“One week,” said Father. “One week to the day.”
Mother looked at her lap. “I thought there would be more time.”
“No, you didn’t,” said Father.
“We both thought there would be more time.”
“No,” said Father. “We didn’t.”
“Who’s coming?” asked Valentine.
“Miss Valentine would like to know who’s coming,” said Daisy.
Mother and Father looked at Daisy, then at Valentine. “We ought to get her upstairs,” said Mother. “She ought to be in her room.”
“Daisy,” said Father, “take Miss Valentine to her room.”
Daisy ushered Valentine up the staircase. “You’re very lucky,” she said. Valentine looked back over her shoulder. Daisy was grinning.
“Who’s coming?” asked Valentine.
“When you were born,” said Daisy, “your parents made a telephone call. That call was to your Uncle George. They promised he could have you. He’s a remarkable man. Remarkable. You’re very lucky.”
“I didn’t know I had an Uncle George,” said Valentine.
“He isn’t your uncle,” said Daisy. “Not really. He isn’t anyone’s uncle. On the day you turn eighteen, Uncle George is coming to take you. That was the arrangement. That is the arrangement. He’s coming from the North and he’s going to take you away from here.”
At the door to the attic bedroom, Valentine turned and looked at Daisy, really looked at her, for the very first time. Her skin was sallow and damp sweat plastered her bangs to her high, wide forehead. Her breath was sour. Her eyes were filled with fever.
“Daisy,” said Valentine. “Tell me. Am I really as ugly as they say I am?”
Daisy beamed. “Oh, yes, ma’am,” she said. “You are quite magnificently ugly.”
She switched on the radio and left.
Valentine sat by the window, white noise crackling behind her eardrums. The news announcer was saying something about a cold front. She peered at the glass and could not see herself; peered past the glass, and saw a black mass of starlings, dipping and swaying in the ice-grey air, each bird’s wings arched and unmoving and perfectly, perfectly silent.
Rain pelted the mansion and swallowed the grounds. Mother sat by the fire and pretended to read. Father stood by the window and bit down on his cigarette holder. The radio played something Valentine supposed was meant to sound jaunty, but the weather caught and warped the notes, twisting each chord inside out and back upon itself.
“Barnes,” Father said. “Are all the doors locked?”
“Yes, sir,” said Barnes, setting the tea service down upon the chessboard table. It was exactly level with where Valentine sat on the rug. Anyone else would have to stoop down to reach it.
“Every one?” said Father. “Even the garage?”
“Yes, sir,” said Barnes, pouring the tea into a cup. He walked over to Valentine and looked down at her.
“And the storm windows?” said Father. “They’re all sealed, I trust?”
“Yes, sir,” said Barnes, watching Valentine. “All of them.”
Valentine looked up at Barnes. Every part of him was long, longer than it needed to be, and there were too many angles. The man had an asymmetry to him, a very orderly disorder. His lids were low, his mouth a line. He knelt down before her. As he handed her the cup, his wrist rotated; she heard the bones crack. His fingers shifted, very slightly, very rhythmically, a disjointed dance. Valentine wasn’t quite sure she’d actually seen it; perhaps it was merely a quirk of musculature. He was already moving away.
“I don’t think we locked the cellar door,” said Father. “Barnes? Did you lock the cellar door?”
“I can check if you’d like, sir,” said Barnes, picking up the tea service. He had not offered a cup to anyone but Valentine.
“Thank you, Barnes,” said Father, and turned back to the window.
Valentine twisted the cup in her hands. Dark visions shimmered in the liquid. The curve of a jaw, the arch of a brow. Skin and eyes. Never enough to form a whole. Never enough to form an idea, an educated guess. There was a face inside the cup, as there was a face in the dirty window-glass, and in the murky puddles outside; but it was a face she could never see.
“Storm warnings persist into the night,” said the radio announcer. “Black ice on the roads into and out of the North.”
Valentine looked at the chessboard table. Thick black rivulets of tea had spilled over the rim of the tray, pooling in the gutters between the black and red tiles.
“He is very tall and very fine,” said Daisy, brushing Valentine’s hair over her eyes. “You understand, Miss Valentine, that I’m not talking about his body or his face. When one speaks of Uncle George, one speaks of impressions. The patterns he traces upon the backs of one’s eyelids. The empty air he leaves in the spaces where once he stood. The words one uses to describe the words one would use if only they existed. So when I say that Uncle George is very tall and very fine, I mean that that is the way one remembers him, not necessarily the way he is.”
“How do you remember him?” asked Valentine. “Oh, I’ve never met him, ma’am. Not in person.” Daisy continued to play with Valentine’s hair, her eyes shining bright with fever. Daisy spread her fingers and drew them slowly through Valentine’s hair. Her nails clawed at the roots.“I have a picture of him in my mind, in the place where everyone, if they can bear to look closely enough, keeps a picture of him. He wears beautiful clothes that he has never bought or paid for. He comes in a long shining black car bedecked with white ribbons. The trees listen for him, and in return he sends them signs and wonders. Fires in hedgerows. Lightning on the hillsides in summer. The frosted eyes of toads in winter. That is how he sends word of his coming, Miss Valentine. That is how he speaks.”
Daisy leaned over to tease out a knot. Valentine noticed that Daisy, for the first time since she’d known her, was wearing her own hair down. It was the soft brown of earth, thick and dark as fresh-ploughed loam. It smelled of stolen perfume and burning flowers. Valentine closed her eyes and breathed in deep.
The sun’s light grew brighter by the day, but somehow more diffuse, lacking true radiance. Valentine followed its patchy glow through the hedge maze, seeking warmth. The temperature in the house had dipped overnight. Thin curlicues of ice tangled in the eaves, threw white shadows across the windowpanes.
Valentine watched the ground. More twigs underfoot than usual. Tough and skinny and black, snapping at the lightest touch, as if they’d been burned. She raised her head and stared into the sky. The clouds were streaked with black and red and a strange, charred iridescence, something wild and gleaming and sick.
She pulled her shawl tight and headed deeper into the maze. She had no fixed idea of what she might find there, or if she might find anything at all. As a child, she had imagined that at the heart of the labyrinth she would finally encounter her true face. She’d thought perhaps she might have to fight it, conquer it, force it into submission before she could claim it as her own. But she’d never reached the maze’s heart, so there was nothing for her to claim.
Valentine rounded a corner and saw Daisy and Barnes. The servants were facing one another, very close, not moving. Their breath came quiet and hard, gently gusting loose strands of hair back from one another’s faces. A light sweat slicked their skin. Daisy opened her hand. A fistful of bright petals fell into the mud at her feet. She rotated her wrist and shifted her fingers. Barnes, eyes locked with hers, did the same. Their bones clicked in brittle call and response, one skeleton speaking with another.
Ritual completed, the servants turned and walked away, holding hands. Valentine waited until they were gone and went over to where the petals had fallen. She looked down at them, thought, Maybe I should pick them up. Maybe I should take them inside with me. Show Mother and Father.
She knelt down and carefully brushed the wet soil over the petals until there was nothing left of them to be seen. She looked up, staring at the place where Daisy and Barnes had stood. They had been so close. So close.
Valentine dug up one of the petals and placed it in the pocket of her skirt.
Returning to the house, Valentine stopped in the hall. The sewing room door was open, the radio inside turned all the way up. Horns echoed through the vaulted hallways, trills vibrating up and down the walls. The flocked wallpaper had begun to peel. Valentine took a corner between two fingers and pulled. Grainy black boards lay rotting beneath. She dropped the strip and walked into the sewing room. Her mother stood by the window, a curtain wrapped around her shoulders. Her fingers were clasped and she was staring at the ceiling. The horns thrummed in Valentine’s eardrums.
“What’s the weather like outside?” asked Mother. Valentine barely heard her over the din, and, when it finally registered that she had spoken, looked around to see whom she addressed. Mother never spoke directly to her.
“It’s all right,” she shouted. “Getting colder.”
Mother looked down, irritated. “What the hell are you yelling about now?” she said. “All you ever do is yell, mumble, yell…” She sighed and dropped the curtain. “I don’t suppose you can help it.”
The horns cut off. “A mysterious wave of illness,” bellowed the radio announcer, “thought to originate in the North and spreading across the country. No confirmed deaths as yet but contagion is thought to be…”
Valentine switched the radio off.
“Why did you do that?” asked Mother.
“It was hurting my ears,” Valentine said.
“I was listening to that,” said Mother. “I was listening. Some of us need to know what’s going on in the world. We can’t all be as lucky as you. We can’t all have good people taking care of us.” She glanced out the window. Her eyes were bloodshot. “When you’re young, you make choices,” she began. “I hope you can understand…” She lapsed back into staring silence.
Valentine waited for her to speak again. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to, and probably wouldn’t for a very long time, Valentine put her hands in her pockets and slouched back out the door.
On the staircase she met her father. He looked, for a moment, as if he did not recognize her.
“Oh,” he said. “I beg your pardon.”
He was in his dressing gown and slippers. It was three o’clock in the afternoon.
“Are you feeling all right, Father?” asked Valentine.
Father tilted his head, gazing at her with soft-eyed pity. “I do wish we had taught you to speak,” he said. “All the things you might have said. I suppose it’s rather like having a parrot or something, isn’t it? You wait too long to teach it to speak and its colors fade and it grows old and you grow old and by the time it occurs to you that you might have taught it to speak, it’s far too late for everyone.”
Valentine said nothing. She looked down at his feet. They were very white, the ankles thin knobs of twitching ivory.
“Oh, well,” Father said. “Oh, well.” He looked away, raised his arm and coughed wetly into his sleeve.
“A wall of fire,” said the radio announcer, “moving in from the North. Reports indicate that the current death toll is somewhere in the…”
Valentine lay on the dust-choked floor of her room, her legs crossed at the ankle, her skirts in disarray. She was holding the petal up to the light, turning it this way and that. It was pure white, laced with delicate veins of red. It had been burned somehow. The blackened edges admitted no light.
The servants had stood so close.
Valentine pressed the petal against her collarbone and spread her fingers upward, the tips brushing her chin. She hovered over her face, but did not touch it. Its terrain was too foreign. She could not be certain of what she might find.
She climbed up to her bed, placed the petal under her pillow and the pillow under her head, shut her eyes, and dreamed.
In the dream that was not a dream, all the world was dark, cold, and shivering beneath a long distorted shadow. Empty cities were dusted with the powdered bones of birds. Feathers drifted down brackish canals of melted ice. Trees and hedges swayed and buckled, eaten away at the root. Tongues of bright fire lashed empty black roads. Lightning dashed itself against crumbling walls of peeling paper, and at the heart of the hedge maze there waited a man who was very tall and very fine and not a man at all. A toad blinked in petal-strewn dirt. Its dull green eyes were frosted over, turned to solid ice.
Valentine opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. In the corner, just above the window, a dead moth fluttered in a cobweb.
“He’s almost here,” she told it.
The family ate dinner, when they remembered to. Mother had to be coaxed away from the window. Father could barely get out of bed.
“Fatalities thought to number in the thousands,” said the radio announcer. The parents had insisted that the servants move the radio into the dining room. “Fire and ice spreading down from the North in solid walls, consuming all in their path.”
Barnes spooned soup into Valentine’s bowl. He had served her first.
Mother watched them. “I’m quite hungry tonight, Barnes,” she said.
“Quite so, ma’am,” said Barnes. He gave her a lot less than Valentine.
Mother stared at the soup bowl, then at Barnes, then at Valentine. She lifted the spoon to her lips and blew on the hot liquid. She drank deep, and set the spoon neatly beside her bowl. “I believe I’m finished, Barnes,” she said.
“Quite so, ma’am,” said Barnes. He took the bowl and headed back toward the kitchen. Valentine noticed that he was barefoot.
Father stared into his bowl. His shoulders were slumped. He did not seem as if he could find the strength to lift his spoon. “Very good soup tonight, Daisy,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” said Daisy, hovering behind the shadows.
Father coughed. “Did you add extra pepper?”
“That would be telling, sir,” said Daisy.
A fine red stream began to run from Father’s nose. It coated his lips, dripping off the edge of his chin, into the soup.
“Capital stuff,” Father said. “Capital.”
“Would Miss Valentine like some wine with dinner?” said Daisy.
“Miss Valentine is a child,” said Mother.
“I’m nearly eighteen,” said Valentine.
“Miss Valentine is nearly eighteen, ma’am,” said Daisy.
Mother balled her hand into a fist, raised it, and slammed it on the table. The candles trembled and fell.
“I would like some wine,” Valentine told Daisy. “Thank you, Daisy.”
Daisy curtsied and left. Valentine looked at Mother. Mother looked back. The tablecloth between them was beginning to burn.
“A rain of dead birds,” said the radio announcer. “Starlings thought to be infected.”
Daisy returned with the wine and began to pour. She served Valentine first.
“It’s your fault,” Mother said to Father.
Father looked up. “Mine?” he said. His teeth were filmed with red.
“Yours,” Mother said. “He’s your brother.”
“He isn’t my brother,” said Father. “He’s yours. You said he was yours.”
“I said no such thing,” said Mother.
Valentine watched Daisy. Her hair was loose again, and all the top buttons of her shirt were undone, almost down to the breastbone.
“Well, he can’t have her,” said Mother. “I take it back. I take it all back.”
“You can’t,” said Father. “It’s done. The deal.” He coughed. Blood spattered the table. “The deal is in place.”
“I want this to end,” said Mother. She clutched at the arms of her chair. “It has to end.”
Valentine held her wineglass up to the light, looking for her own face. Nothing. Only red stains. Daisy filled the glass again. Their eyes met. Daisy smiled and rotated her wrist, shifting her fingers. The bones cracked. Valentine arranged her features in a way that she hoped made it clear she was smiling back.
“It’s almost over,” said Father. The tablecloth was aflame now, a great dark smoldering hole. No one moved to put it out.
Father died in the night.
Valentine and her mother watched from the sewing room window as Daisy and Barnes dug the grave. Father lay beside it, wrapped in a white sheet spackled all over with red. The edges of the sheet whipped in the hard cold wind; only the weight of his body kept it from flying away. Valentine searched her heart for sorrow, and emerged with nothing. She had barely known the man. Already she was starting to forget him.
By the time the servants were six feet deep and hauling the body down, night had come again.
“I ought to say something,” Mother said.
Valentine looked at her. She had pulled down the curtains and wrapped them around her body. She was getting very thin.
“Somebody ought to say something,” she said.
“You just did,” Valentine said.
“If you had a voice, a real one,” said Mother, “I’d ask you to say something. Just a few words. But you can’t even manage that, can you?” She sighed and shifted under her curtain. “It’s too bad. Too bad for us all.”
They watched the servants take up their shovels once more, watched the dirt fly.
“He was right, you know,” Mother said. “It is almost over.”
Valentine woke at midnight to the sound and smell of burning. Kneeling on her bed, she looked out the window. All of Father’s things were outside, all of them on fire. His sheets, his blankets, his mattress and his chairs, his brushes and his combs, his shirts and his suits, his cigarette holder. Everything he’d ever touched, ablaze and turning to ash.
Two figures moved in the firelight. The servants pressed together, forearms entwined, dancing a slow and rhythmless waltz. They were in their underwear. Sweat rolled off their bodies, fizzing and sparking in the heat.
Valentine watched them until her eyelids grew heavy and she slept again. In the morning she awoke to find her father’s cigarette lighter on the pillow beside her. She rolled onto her back, turning it over in her hands. Reaching under her pillow, she pulled out the dried petal, thin and crackly as old paper. She sparked the lighter and set the petal aflame, then placed it in her mouth. It seared her flesh, charred the fat wet underside of her tongue, and its aftertaste was sweet, so very very sweet.
She got up and made her way downstairs. The radio boomed all through the house, filling the empty halls, the empty walls, the empty spaces. No words anymore, nothing but hissing static, and a thick voice mumbling nonsense behind the white fall of noise. Vaaaaaah. Lunnnnnn. Eyyyyyn.
Her footfalls echoed. The curtains were gone. She felt absence all around her, all the way through the house and down into the garden. Her mother’s clothing lay at the mouth of the hedge maze, dress, slip, girdle and stockings in a folded pile, shoes placed neatly on top.
She crossed her legs and sat down in the dirt. The clouds were full of frost, full of fire. Last night’s smoke lingered in the atmosphere, burning deep in her lungs. A scattering of feathers all around. Starlings, Valentine thought. But as far as she could tell, there wasn’t a single bird in the sky.
The morning of her eighteenth birthday, Valentine woke as usual, washed as usual, dressed as usual and headed downstairs as usual. She thought of combing her hair back from her face, of dressing in one of her mother’s gowns or smoking one of her father’s cigarettes, but she understood there was no need. The day was special enough.
The radio had died. The mansion enclosed itself around the silence. Valentine made her way down the staircase, watched her deformed shadow grow before her. She was aware of her body, surrounding her on all sides, meat encasing bone, enfolding and encompassing all she knew of herself, all she knew of the world.
The servants were down on one knee on either side of the main doorway. Their heads were bowed, their bodies naked. Valentine smiled, and kissed first Daisy, then Barnes. Their lips tasted of dead, dried flowers.
The wind kicked up as Valentine left the house, and she could taste the sickness in the air on the scorched flesh beneath her tongue. To one side of the mansion, a great wall of flame lashed and snapped, burning down the hedgerows; to the other, a wall of ice, gleaming knife-edge sharp, stalagmites of frost stabbing up from the earth, piercing the hearts of trees. The sky was black with birds.
Between the house and the hedge maze sat a long black limousine, shining brighter than anything Valentine had ever known. Petals were strewn across the bonnet. White ribbons fluttered from the bright silver grille.
As Valentine approached, she saw something move in the polished black window, something growing sharper, gaining definition, with her every step. Understanding took shape in her mind: what she saw in the window coming to greet her was her very own face. Her very own form. She felt the tears come, saw them gather in the eyes of the other. She knew nothing about herself, nothing about this beautiful, hideous stranger to whom she came, except that she was coming to her, that she was going to touch her, that she would make contact at last.
The window was rolling down, inch by darkened inch. Any minute now it would disappear completely, and she would be gone.
Valentine lifted her arm. She stretched her fingers as far as they would go. The window was almost down now, almost all the way down.
Her hand was moving. She was reaching out.
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