If I still had a voice, I would cry out.
The fabric is thick and my needle blunt—I should have sharpened it before now—so I put too much weight behind my thrust and forced the point. Not only the quilt, but also my finger is impaled. I do not wail, though I long to, determined not to make the hideous grunt that is the only noise left to me. In my memory, I still hold the sound of my voice, but each time I bellow it lessens, chips away at the timbre so lovingly preserved in recollection. Slowly, carefully, I draw the thread fully through, then pull my injured digit off the silver shaft. A scrap of spare cloth is wrapped around the glistening blue-ruby drop, then the needle itself is assiduously cleaned. I set the bulky bundle of material aside and limp, my legs stiff from hours of sitting, to the basin in the far corner of the tiny room Mother Magnus has given me. Washing the injury, applying a salve, then bandaging the deep wound; I look out the window, not really seeing so much as remembering what is there before me.
Bellsholm sprawls along the banks of the wide Bell River, loose-limbed as a sleeping giant; a rough crescent with its northern tip truncated by the bulk of the Singing Rock. In the foothills that hug the edge of the town some few ramshackle houses have crept, not too high, and certainly nothing up on the majestic outcropping of the promontory. At the furtherest boundaries there are farms to supply the markets and businesses best located away from the centre of town, such as the carriage maker, the foundry, the marble worker’s studio, three carpentry and joinery firms, and Ballantyne’s Coffin Emporium where the strange woman employs four apprentices and, rumour has it, keeps a locked room filled entirely with mirrors. There is also the hostelry, where travellers with no interest in the hamlet can rest, eat, exchange their tired horses for fresh ones, then continue their journeys. Down by the river are the docks, brimming and bobbing with great ships from afar filled with all the finest things a prosperous place requires, and small local boats that bring in fish and travel up and down the reaches too narrow for the caravels and barques.
I can hear, dimly, the melodies of the rusalky, wafting up from the base of the Rock, where they laze daily (except Sundays when the sound of church bells sends them into hiding) and serenade anyone who will listen. Murdered maidens, those unfortunate in love, gather their spirits to sit on the rocks, dangling luminescent toes in the water. The weak of will may traipse too close and fall in. Some drown. The locals are, by now, mostly inured to the strains and are all brought up to swim like eels—indeed, Léolin will tell you that as a young man only his strong stroke saved him on the day when he was distracted by a particularly lovely ballad. The greatest danger is to travellers, on ships and on the roads, unfamiliar with our ladies.
My finger aches and throbs and drags me back to the four-walled space with its thin-mattressed brass bed, ancient velvet-covered chaise, stand of drawers, and the single lantern to brighten my nights. I must ignore the pain and get back to my work. To the quilt, the wedding quilt; the wedding quilt that should have been mine.
• • •
Adlai made his money on the ships.
I cannot say when we first met, for it seemed he was always there beside me as we two orphans made our way in the world—but our whole time together, reason tells me, could not have been more than three years. So, perhaps we met soon after I first came here, hoping to find a home. I had a voice then. A voice with which to sing and shout, speak and chant, to laugh and sometimes lie. I had a voice to say “Yes” when he asked me to lie with him, to say “Aye” when he begged “Marry me”, to say “Please” when asked if he should read to me that which I could not for myself, and to bid him “Farewell, fair winds” when he sailed off on his very first journey. He—we—had scrimped and saved, set aside the money for his passage and the funds needed for the silks and velvets, the barathea and the bayadere, the cashmeres and organzas he would bring back to Bellsholm.
We had not married—all our meagre capital went towards this endeavour, towards establishing Adlai—but it was, he assured me, only a matter of time. The first trip was a happy success; the exquisite bolts of cloth were demanded by modistes, interior stylists, furniture makers, and craftsfolk whose living lay in creating elaborate curtains and cushions and bed linen for those with more money than sense. We made a profit, some of which was set aside and the rest reinvested in his next buying expedition.
Adlai’s apprenticeship to a gentlemen’s costumier did not satisfy him. He did not see any way that he might rise—even were he to inherit the business from his master some way down the track, he would not reach the heights he desired for himself. There would be no grand house in the Vines district (itself a tiny created island, surrounded by a diverted channel of the river, and accessed by six tidy bridges), no closed fiacre in red and black, no servants, no piles of money gradually accruing interest in the Bellsholm Bank, and—did I but know it—no well-bred wife to admire it. All that life guaranteed for him was continued servitude to those above, measuring coats and breeches, cutting waistcoats from splendid cloth he himself would never wear.
As funds accumulated, so our accommodations grew finer—or rather, so his grew finer. From the garret atop the gentlemen’s outfitter, to a small room in Mrs Xavier’s Rooming House, thence to a larger chamber, then to a suite with two rooms, then three, then four, until finally he purchased a tall house in Lady’s Mantel Court. It was three-stories high and, by all accounts, equipped with five bedrooms, an attic with space to store seven servants, a subterranean kitchen, and a large tidy garden out back. The facade was smoothed plaster, painted apricot and white, with shimmering filigree touches on the window and door fittings. A high wrought iron fence, black, with gold and silver finials on each spike, kept the common riff-raff on the street where they belonged. A riot of well-tended flowers bloomed in the front garden.
Adlai then handsomely paid those very same furniture makers and interior designers, curtain and linen and cushion makers, who had sought his wares so avidly, to decorate his new home. The perfectly serviceable fittings and furnishings left by the former owners (an importer of wines and his wife and sons, fallen on hard times due to the predations of pirates) were thrown out on the streets, and quickly snatched up by those with less cash and more cunning. The old drapes were piled beside padded chairs, sets of drawers, myriad duchesses and chaises; these textiles, hardly faded, disappeared rapidly, only to reappear not many days later as dresses for girls and exuberant sailor suits for boys. Wallpaper, that had clung vertical for barely twelve months, was scraped off and burned in the basement furnace. Everything, it seemed, must be new.
In the end, the abode at Number 6 Lady’s Mantel Court outshone its neighbours. Adlai Alveson’s social status climbed as well—prosperity turned his humble origins into a mere bagatelle, easily overlooked. He became a member of the chamber of commerce, of the town council, and gained in short order a reputation as something of a philanthropist with donations to the orphanage and the home for sailors’ widows. His betters (some still in full possession of their affluence, others rather impoverished but with breeding in spades), soon turned speculative eyes toward him. Few things open doors like a rapidly expanding fortune.
Why did I not move in with him as his lodgings changed? I asked—oh, I did ask!—and was assured it would happen, but not yet, not at that precise moment. He promised most faithfully that it should come to pass, but for the sake of propriety, it would only be after the wedding, the date of which seemed to shift like the horizon each time I enquired. And I did not push, for after all, wasn’t Adlai the one doing all the work? Wasn’t he the one who travelled and travailed to ensure our future? So I remained, faithfully, steadfastly, in the attic room above my place of employ, Sally Sanders Quality Quilts, sewing counterpanes for people’s weddings, stitching in tiny spells and good luck charms to help happiness, fertility and longevity attach themselves to a couple’s life together. Putting aside the money I made—for I wanted a wedding dress worthy of the name—and making my own quilt out of the lovely scraps my mistress let me harvest from the leftovers of the bedspreads I made for other women.
Adlai would visit, bringing gifts: kid gloves of deepest red, embroidered handkerchiefs, hats so light they seemed made of gossamer and wishes, a thimble, sharp scissors so beautifully crafted they appeared art rather than implement, and an enamelled brooch in the shape of a lovers’ knot, which disappeared almost as soon as it arrived—Adlai said its clasp was loose, he would have it fixed, but it never again came into my possession. These presents, when they ceased, were soon replaced by small piles of coin before he left of a morning—or an evening—but I did not recognise them for what they were: payment for services rendered. He told me fewer and fewer of his dreams, rarely reading to me, never mentioning the time when we would marry and I would join him in his grand home.
Still and all, I welcomed him with open arms each and every time, greeted him with patience and trust—although truth be told I ignored the things that gave me pause. The fear of being alone was too great in those days, of being set aside—if I did not look directly at it, I felt certain I would not see it and if I did not see it then surely it could not exist. So I blinded myself quite willingly, showed him the designs I’d drawn for our wedding quilt, told him of the enchantments and charms I’d created just for us. How this would be my finest work, and we would be bonded more strongly than any lovers had ever been. I did not notice, then, how he changed the subject, nor how he failed to answer questions that pertained to our future. I filled the silences, the gaps between us with mindless chatter, busy useless noise. Had I but known my voice had only a short time to remain, I’d have chosen my words more scrupulously, used my breath more wisely, said things of importance, rather than babbling inanely.
• • •
I creep to the edge of the water, hang out over the bank like a weeping branch. The current is fast, the surface touched by a light cold mist that floats up towards me—it will burn off when dawn breaks properly. In the weak pearly light, I can see my quarry, dozing on a horse-shaped rock but a long leap away.
In sleep, the rusalka has lost some of her form. In the sunlight, when they know they’re watched, they are careful to keep the shape they had in life; slumbering, they grow forgetful and let the changes wrought by experience and death come to the fore. The skin has a greenish tint, the hair a life of its own—not a gentle undulation as if shifted by eddies, but an angry serpentine motion. I can see, if I look closely, the holes in her body where the rot has eaten through.
I select a pebble from the ground and take careful aim. The thing on the rock jerks awake when hit, all grace lost to surprise; she hisses, her teeth sharp, and eyes backlit by an unholy light. I shudder, just a little, but I do not show fear when her glare lands on me. I straighten and begin my dumb show. She calms as she realises there is a deal to be made, and relaxes back into her daylight aspect: long-limbed, golden-haired, smiling, teeth as neat and white as pearls, gaze as blue as a summer sky.
I tap at my eyes, so she knows where things start, then my fingertips patter on my cheeks, miming rain. She cocks her head to the side, lifts an eyebrow; she knows what I want, but wonders what I will give in return. From the pocket of my apron, I draw an embroidered swathe of white cambric and slowly unfold its layers so she may view what lies therein. Her eyes go wide, and I hide a smile, knowing I will get my way in this thing. I look down at the long, thick plait of auburn-rose hair curled around and around, all three yards of it, thick as a baby’s arm. The length that once hung down my back. I brushed it one hundred times to make sure it shone like richest cinnabar, then carefully plaited it before Magnus, protesting at the loss, cut it carefully off with the large, sharp scissors I reserve for shearing through thick fabrics. Magnus swore the murdered maids would find it irresistible, and I would need something irresistible if I was to gain the first ingredient.
The rusalka nods, this bargain too good to refuse, although I cannot imagine what she will use the tresses for; I do not care.
I pull a golden vial from my apron and carefully toss it towards her; she snatches it from the air, quick as a snake. She appears to concentrate and then, as if on cue, she weeps. No actress treading the stages of the great cities could do better. Sluggish silver tears creep down her cheeks and she holds the ampule up to catch them, first one side, then the next. She cries freely, generously. When she is done, she pushes the stopper home, making sure nothing can escape, then slips down the rock and swims to me in a flash of white skin-now scales, flashing feet-now tail. She reaches up and offers me the vial; I reach down and give her the coil of hair; we swap our treasures at the same moment.
We both smile, each certain that she has gained the better part of the bargain.
• • •
On the day the Revenant docked, I was placing the last stitches in my quilt, the silver thimble he’d brought me all the way from Lodellan shining on my pointer finger. Pure damask, a double wedding ring pattern embroidered in argent threads. Between the two internal layers of padding I had sewn a series of tokens: tiny sterling horseshoes, miniature bags containing sprigs of apple blossom, yet others of althea and balm of gilead, cardamom and clove, rose and lavender; love knots and bows, four coins (one for each corner), and seersucker clovers.
And it was white, so white, white as snow, white as bone.
I finished my task, dexterously folded the coverlet, wrapped it in a laurel green cloth, tied it all together with a silk ribbon, then gently placed it in the box of reinforced hunter-coloured brocade decorated with gold lace trim. The box with the tiny stain in one corner that was ruined for customers, but which Mistress Saunders was more than happy to let me have. I wonder now, as I did not then, why I was so willing to accept second best things.
Outside, the air was fresh and intoxicating after a morning of being cooped up in my attic room. I wandered down to the docks, thinking to buy some of the sweet small fish Léolin kept aside, perhaps a fresh loaf of bread, which would be delicious today and passable tomorrow. As I neared, I could hear the sounds of ships creaking against moorings, of men shouting to one another, of cargo and baggage being hefted to and fro, and, beneath it all, the carillon peel of rusalky voices on the breeze. Salt aromas clung to hulls that had known the seas but days before, and I daydreamed of voyages I would take alongside Adlai.
“Careful, hen, or you’ll fall in the drink. C’mon, pay attention now.”Léolin’s rough voice was belied by the kindness in his tone. He was tall and broad, blonde and bearded, with skin red and rugged. He made a good living, but smelled like fish. “You’re looking pleased with yourself, and your feet are barely touching the ground.”
“I’ve finished my quilt, laid the last stitch,” I fairly sang, and his face darkened.
“You’ll be looking for your man, then,” he observed, and shook his head, began adjusting the shiny grey bodies all lined up on the bench of his stall. “ait; I’m sure he’ll have business hereabouts.”
He lifted his chin and I followed the direction of his gaze.
The Revenant was a clipper from Breakwater; it plied the seas then crept up rivers like ours, to despatch passengers and some cargo—mostly high end, expensive and small, cargo and passengers both—and it was a vessel on which Adlai had taken passage more than once. A party of five was tripping down the gangplank. A pretty pink miss with large eyes led them, with a parasol to protect her, an ecru and lapis dress with bustle and gold lace cuffs, her caramel-coloured hair all caught up in a net with the sheen of spider silk covered with morning dew, and a teeny-tiny hat perched on the crown of her head, tilted ever so slightly to the left. She was accompanied by an older woman, grey-haired, grey-gowned, with a black mourning veil wrapped tight about her face as if her private grief might never be allowed to escape; two girls—the Miss’s sisters? cousins?—not yet in their twenties, who looked like twin roses in coral dresses and white gloves; and there was a man, old, serious in appearance, with the air of a majordomo about him—a man used to organising affairs.
I watched and listened as arrangements were made for their effects to be decanted from the ship as soon as possible and delivered, post-haste, to the house at Number Six Lady’s Mantel Court. As I pondered this there was the sound of a carriage clattering to a halt; a fiacre, shining with red and black lacquer and gold fittings, drawn by four night-coloured horses, each with ebony leather trappings studded with brass bits and fastened with brass buckles. The conveyance pulled up and Adlai, lithe and resplendent in pale fawn breeches, hand-crafted square-toed shoes, brocade tailcoat with emerald buttons, white silk shirt, golden cravat and a magnificent waistcoat of cream and cerise and wheat, stepped forth. He bowed so deeply to the lady at the centre of the party that I thought his fine tricorne hat (in shades of chocolate) might fall from his cinnamon curls. But no; it was judged perfectly, his obeisance, like all things Adlai had done—had learned to do—all the things that drew him further from me.
When he straightened, he was bold—but just the right amount—stepping in close to the pretty girl, one hand on her elbow, the other around her waist, his lips to her ear, almost touching, and I could see the wet glimmer of his tongue as he spoke words no one else could hear, but which I suspected I knew, for he had told them to me enough times. But to her—to her he would mean them. On her left hand glistened a fat sapphire set in gold, a piece I recognised. He had shown it to me and promised it would be mine, one day. And I noticed at that very moment, the flash of enamel at the join of her prim collar, twisted in the shape of a lovers’ knot.
The rusalky chorus, which had been as steady a rhythm as an untroubled heartbeat, seemed to swell at that moment, impossibly high. Penetrating the air between their rocky domain and the docks, shocking all who heard it, making eardrums ring. Or perhaps that was simply my perception.
Then Adlai broke contact, and time moved again. He greeted the governess, the twins, the majordomo, and bustled them all towards the fiacre, which would be snugly packed, but he would sit so close, so close to the pretty girl, perhaps she would be almost in his lap—propriety suspended a little, after all, they were affianced and such a man could surely be trusted with a lady’s honour. Certainly with a lady’s honour. Not that, though, of a stupid illiterate quilter.
I watched. He was the last to climb into the carriage and he must have felt the weight of my gaze, for he turned and found me, standing in my faded lavender dress, with its made-over sleeves, patches and many-times-repaired hem, the white lace applied to make it seem not so poor. For I spent no money on clothes, setting it all aside at first for his voyages then later when he stopped needing it, for our wedding, our life. For all the things that would never happen.
He smiled at me, sadly, nervously.
I wondered how long he’d thought he could get away with it. Not even I could tell myself she was a guest, the daughter of a business partner simply passing through, being offered hospitality. Perhaps I would have tried, had it not been for that look, that last look as he turned his head and hauled himself into the carriage and I saw him seated beside the pretty girl, one hand lightly laid over her pale two.
Léolin’s paw was heavy with sympathy on my shoulder and, did I but realise it, hope. I heard him say my name and it occurred to me, finally, that Adlai had not used it for some time.
• • •
After the sun had set and good folk were sitting down to their evening meal, I took one of the bridges to the Vines District. I was unsure what I would do. Whether I would knock on that pastel door, ask to speak to the master of the house. Whether I would simply stand on the corner cloaked in twilight and watch the windows as people moved past them, carrying tapers to light lamps and candles. Whether I would take one of the stones I had placed in my pockets and hurl it at those very same windows, purely for the joy of hearing the shattering of their expensive glass and the high-pitched shrieks of well-bred women.
As it transpired I had no chance to do anything.
From behind, hands grabbed me and pulled me into deeper shadows. A cloth came over my mouth and nose, stinking of belladonna. Sleep was swift.
• • •
I run a finger across the stump of my tongue. It no longer aches, the scars are smooth now with the stitches removed and the blood-crusts gone. Despite the absence I still sometimes think it yet remains—a phantom tongue to match my phantom voice.
Setting aside the quilt, I stand—this new quilt is all but ready, the two halves finely made, some strips and scraps of my old wedding quilt worked in, so that skerricks of lost hopes and broken dreams will cling to it. It needs only to be pinned and sewn together, then the pattern I have chosen stitched, but the second ingredient is needed.
From beneath my bed, I draw a cup of water. Last night it was clean and clear when I placed it there. Now it is black and churns of its own accord, filled with the nightmares that would otherwise plague me if I did not employ this simple piece of magic to draw them away and trap them. Carefully, I add it to the contents of the stout earthenware jar Magnus gave me. I slide the flat copper disk into place then heat the stick of red wax, and seal the container, blowing gently to cool and set it quickly. I move into the sitting room, which is filled with light from the large windows and thence to the lean-to which runs off the kitchen. This is where Magnus grinds her herbs, mixes her potions, and casts her spells; a small area, cramped, its shelves over-laden, and hanging from the ceiling are bunches of dried plants waiting their turn to be made into something else. I place the jar on the workbench where it will be ready for her when she returns, and hidden from Léolin when he arrives.
Mother Magnus is a hedge witch. She is not shunned, nor is she embraced. She is, however, accepted as an essential part of Bellsholm’s life. Her magic can shade from white to black, should she choose and should her clients pay enough. Her cottage, neat and tidy, is just at the edge of the town, just before the earth begins to climb, to roll up to the Singing Rock. There are no other dwellings nearby. This, perhaps, was why Léolin brought me here.
In the grey dawn, Léolin out in his dory, noticed what seemed a lavender sack floating downriver; then he recognised the rags of white lace, then the red hair stretching out like waterweed. When he pulled me aboard, I coughed and he had a brief hope, for it was a sign of life—but with that cough came a great gout of blood and a sound—oh, a sound he swears he never wishes to hear again. Something told him not to take me back to the town, not to try the doctors there, the doctors who socialised with Adlai. He made his way to the shore, then carried me to Magnus and begged her to save me.
And save me she did, although for a long while I would not have thanked her for it. She healed the cuts, helped the bruises fade faster, set the breaks in my arm and ribs, and stopped me choking on my own blood where they’d cut out my tongue. Léolin has told me since, somewhat unwillingly, that that particular part of me was taken as proof of my death, presented to my erstwhile beloved. I was fortunate; I suppose that they were too lazy to try for the heart as well. These are the rumours he collects, the whispers from the docks where worlds mix and mingle and good folk might hear terrible things about what has been done and covered up.
Magnus has tried, too, since that day, to mend the breaks in my spirit but I did not respond until she began to stoke the strange and terrible cold fire of revenge. She knew, I think, that it was the only way to keep me alive, the only way to keep me from sliding into the apathetic darkness of death—for I was determined to walk that path for the longest time.
“Do something,” begged Léolin as he sat beside my bed in those first days and weeks. “Do anything.”
I wonder if he would have said the same thing if he knew what Magnus dangled before my dimly flickering soul in order to pull me back.
There is a knock, politely tentative. I wait and then the door opens, as always, and Léolin ducks his height under the lintel. He can stand straight inside, but must watch his head. He carries a posy of lilac roses and windflowers; the townsfolk surely must think he is courting Magnus. He blushes to see me and smiles. No matter that he plucked me from the river, that he saw me at my lowest, that he has seen me more in the past few months than he ever did in the time I lived in the town, that he has lain with me, he still flushes like a lad whenever he arrives.
“Hello, my dove, I like your hair.” He fingers its sheared edges in wonder. We do not kiss but we do all the other things a courting couple might. Léolin makes plans for us.
“When you’re quite better, hen, we’ll leave. I have enough for us both. There’s anywhere in the wide world we can go; put your finger on a map, choose a compass point and that’s where we shall be.”
I smile as he speaks and I listen. I wonder sometimes if this was how I sounded to Adlai. Léolin does not know how ruined I truly am.
After he leaves, Magnus discretely returns, her basket filled with medicinal blooms and newly-dug roots, a rabbit or two to feed us for the next few days. She has been trying to teach me my letters. I try, I do, but I cannot help but feel it is merely a distraction—that, having shown me a path, she now wishes to divert me from it.
Magnus is tall, her hair ash-white, but her face belies that colour, the skin smooth and creamy, a wide plum of a mouth—she has not yet crossed over that boundary into the shadow-land where women become invisible. Her figure is fleshy but shapely, her eyes the colour of honey and her smile is ready.
“I saw Léolin,” she says, “on the road.”
I simply watch her. We have had this one-sided conversation before and I do not imagine its direction will change.
“He would take you, you know. Take you elsewhere, uproot his whole life all for your sake. You don’t have to do what you’ve planned.”
We have made ourselves understood with signals and signs these past weeks and months. When I first came to her, it was she who offered me solutions, with me accepting and refusing alternatively with nods and head shakes. It was she who suggested the option I ultimately chose and now she asks if I am sure? I don’t even nod, merely lift an eyebrow and look towards the bench in the lean-to, where she can see the earthenware jar awaiting her attention. Awaiting her ministrations so I might have my second ingredient.
I need her and her wide-reaching, her all-encompassing magics—the tiny spells I have always known are white as white can be. They are good. But what I need now must be black as the cat curled by the cold kitchen hearth. I pay Mother Magnus in nightmares, in aqua nocturna. All I ask in return is a little dust.
“He doesn’t know, does he? You will not tell him?”
I shake my head and look away, find the cat regarding me with large green eyes.
“Are you sure?” she asks. “Certain this is the path you wish to take?”
I nod, and stare at her so she cannot mistake the answer. She blows out a heavy breath and I think she deflates a little, seems to age, to bow and bend; then the moment is past and she inclines her head.
• • •
The bottom half of the quilt lies across my bed. I have covered my mouth with a cloth, as per Magnus’s instructions, so I don’t breathe in any of the dust made from the water of my nightmares. “Do not waste a speck,” she said. Attentively, I upend the black pouch and sprinkle its contents over the fine white felt I have used as a warm lining. I make sure it is evenly distributed and as I watch each particle worms its way into the fabric, disappearing, embedding itself into the fibre and the future. When I can no longer see the argent-grey gilings, I lay the top half over and pin it in place. Then I pin the pattern that I will quilt, much as I did when I made my own, but this time I make a forest of trees, which a careful eye might note is actually a nest of serpents, but I make their long bodies look like trunks, their heads and tongues seem like flowers, all so intertwined that only the most alert, the most perspicacious might notice the malice sewn there. I place stitches with a silver thread, spun by Magnus from the rusalka’s tears.
When I am finished, my eyes and hands ache. I show the coverlet to Magnus. “Just in time,” she says, fingering the border thoughtfully.
• • •
While the inhabitants of Bellsholm are either at the wedding of Adlai and the girl I now know to be Edine, daughter of a rich Breakwater merchant, or celebrating it in one of the taverns, I will set foot in the house at Number Six Lady’s Mantel Court for the one and only time. Covered and cloaked, I have wandered and stalked, meandered and crept through the town’s streets and byways so many evenings these past months, moving like a spectre unseen and unsuspected. Magnus gave me a pair of soft slippers, their soles enchanted to muffle any noise I might make.
Now I move towards the Vines district in the dimness of dusk, my gift carefully wrapped and bundled on my back like a pack; I sidestep revellers and avoid any who might be sober enough to peer under my hood, perchance to recognise my face. And I slide through the tiny lane behind Lady’s Mantel Court, where there is a back gate for deliverymen to use. I sidle up the gravel path, making not a sound, and thence inside through the servants’ entrance, left unlocked so those preparing for the happy couple’s return might enter and exit with ease. Up the stairs to the second floor, along the corridor towards the front of the house, where there is only one door—the master bedroom runs the width of the building.
The room is a symphony of grey-blues and creams, and all the furniture is of white oak: a roll-top desk, dresser drawers, a vanity complete with cushioned stool, two matching armchairs and a chaise longue placed around a delicate low table inlaid with mother-of-pear. A walk-in dressing room and bathroom are at one end, and at the opposite, a canopied bed.
Upon it already lies a quilt. I look it over, wasting precious moments with professional contempt. The stitching is shoddy, the design mundane—flowers and rabbits—it may well be the work of my former Mistress; she had not sewn since I began to work for her and it seems her skill has deserted her. I yank the spread away, rolling it tightly and pushing it under the bed, where the layers of ruffled valance will hide it from prying eyes. I replace it with the coverlet of my making. It is perfect; even if anyone should notice the change, no one will remove it—not so close to the wedding night when another might not be found, and certainly not when it is as exquisite as this.
When I leave, the eiderdown is lying inert, snowy and lovely, waiting for the third ingredient.
• • •
Back at the cottage I help Magnus prepare. We both know Bellsholm will not be safe after this night; we fill carpetbags with all the possessions she refuses to be without. I do not know why she aided me at such cost to herself. Perhaps she simply felt it is time to move on; perhaps her outrage at what was done to me is what made her act; perhaps, as she tended me when I first woke and voiced a sound to make the Devil weep . . . perhaps she cannot live here without hearing it over and again. We load the small sturdy buggy and harness the tall horse, then she says once again, hopelessly, “Go to him. Now. He is a good man. He will take care of you.”
I hug her hard and let her go; she climbs into the buggy with a sigh. The black cat is perched on the seat beside her, eyeing me wearily. Mother Magnus slaps the reins and the horse, somewhat startled, moves forward with a snappy gait. I watch until they disappear into the darkness of the bend that accommodates the insistent bulk of the Singing Rock, then I go inside. Enough of her things are left in the cottage that any folk who seek her out, who believe her behind what will happen, will not think her fled. They will wait here for her to come home, and by the time they realise she is gone, pursuit will be futile, and I—I will be beyond them too.
As the dark hours creep by, I sit sewing pointless, shapeless samplers, using up threads and scraps, listening in vain for the great swelling arias and canticles floating from the rusalky damozels, the sopranos and contraltos, with the altos winging between. But they will not sing again until daybreak. Sometimes I make flowers, other times animals, yet other times geometric shapes layered on top of one another. I work thus until I doze upright in the armchair. With no glass of water beneath the bed my dreams run riot, but this night they are different; they transport me, it seems, to the bridal chamber, to unwillingly watch as Adlai takes Edine as gently as a husband might a new bride, he with soft caresses, she with noises all reluctant that are given lie by her heavy-lashed gaze and the hearty wet kisses she bestows on him. Then there is the moment, when she cries out, surprised that he has hurt her, surprised that the pleasure has ended in pain, in tearing, in the blood her governess warned her about but to which she had not truly given credence.
I wake when the maids by the Rock begin their vocal exercises, an acrobatic warming of throat and voice, and I have but half an hour at best. I wrap the cloak about me once more and run.
I am breathless by the time I reach Lady’s Mantel Court, and the morning light grows brighter. I stand on the pavement across from that house and watch the windows, listen intently until there is a scream, muffled by glass and thick curtains. Moments pass like breath as folk throw off their slumber, then a male voice, a grunt and a howl. Adlai sees his bride, but not as he expected, not as he had seen her last night. I wonder at the horror I have created, for all my dreams since Adlai’s men took my tongue and left me for dead have been of a spliced woman, her torso female, her lower half a serpent’s tail. All it required was the third ingredient, which only the bride could provide: blood—so much better if it was virginal—to seal the spell, to make the nightmare dust and tear-threads come to life.
More bellows and cries now—they sound so like me! Servants waking, rushing, seeing Edine’s shame—I am sorry for her, she did me no intentional harm, but she was the means to my end. Now she’s a fine bride for a seafaring man.
I turn on my heel and pace steadily, smartly across the bridge opposite the one on which I came. I walk with my head held high, a smile on my face. If I could, I would sing—part of me wants to do it anyway, but I know all I would produce would be a caw even a crow would disdain. In my head, my voice, my true voice sounds, a rich contralto, exultant. In my head, others hear me and turn to listen for as long as they can. I pass people as I go; they take second glances as they recognise me, recoil as if they’ve seen a ghost. I keep moving until I achieve the edge of the town, then begin to climb the steep winding path to the Singing Rock. The songs grow louder as I approach. I wonder if I will join them, the rusalky maids, when I am done. I recognise now that I’ve held this wish in my heart, refusing to look at it for fear it might be taken away. Now I admit it, acknowledge it, hope to find a place I belong.
I reach the peak and the breeze is strong—I can smell the brine, even though all I can see is the wide river snaking along, a green-brown band cutting its way through sometimes mountains, sometimes flat pasture, sometimes marshlands, sometimes land riven by many, many streams. I cannot see the ocean, though; it is too far away.
What I can see, when I turn my head, is the bright golden halo of Léolin’s hair, far below as he knocks upon the cottage door. I hope he will be well, that my betrayal will not break him as I was broken by Adlai. I do not wait to watch him find the place empty.
I step to the edge. The drop is sheer, broken only at the bottom where the rusalky have their day nest and recline on stone couches. I can see shining hair in all hues, white blouses and long, long skirts in silver and gold. Perhaps there are bare feet flashing pale and pink or perhaps those are fish. I will be close enough to see soon enough. The wind picks up, buffets me. I wonder idly if Adlai was at all touched by the horrors my nightmares bred or does he stride freely as a man with a crippled wife must? A smile lifts the corners of my mouth. How will he like his Edine now?
How long before she, too, chooses the water?
I take a few steps back, then run, throw myself out into the sky.
I plummet for such a short time, but I do not hit. That is not what stops me. I open my eyes. The songs from beneath rise, knit themselves together, catch at me as a golden net. They pull me down slowly, slowly, gently towards the surface of the river. I hover above it, unable to move either up or down, thwarted utterly, as the murdered maids watch me sadly.
“You have no voice. You cannot join us,” says the one, then the other, then another, then all the voices threading and weaving one into the next to make a chorus of the same words. The same ribbons of sound, wrapping around and around me, telling me that there will be no welcome here. One of them watches me with a spiteful gleam in her bluer-than-blue eyes, as if she knew my hopes and bided her time until they might be crushed; around her shoulders is a cloak woven of auburn-rose locks, lined with the tiniest chips of stars. Then the net is gone, that wonderful thing of light and sound disappears like a puff of smoke, and I am dropped into the Bell River. The current picks at me, the waters fill my skirts, making me heavier and heavier, pulling me beneath, and out towards the sea.
My nose and mouth fill. I give myself up to the flow—for a moment—then there is drowning and darkness and the actuality of a slow death and I begin to fight. I rip at the catch of my skirts, fingers numb, finally tearing at the band; the buttons wetly give way and all that complexity of petticoats, old lace and weary gingham fall away, down, a’down, into the depths of the Bell. Then my jacket is gone too, and the broderie blouse, and the clever, quiet slippers carelessly discarded after such good service. And here I am naked but for a shivering thin shift, a skin of muslin plastered to me by the press of the tide, which lifts me up and carries me downstream. Towards Breakwater, towards any of more than a dozen tiny places identical to Bellsholm, towards the open sea.