His Living Wife

By Kathleen J. Woods

I have not seen my husband yet. Each night, I await his footsteps, the rustle of feathers outside my door. I lie with my eyes closed against the dark. I am not allowed to look.

They say my husband is a monster. A winged serpent the length of a river. A lion with the snout of a boar. A death’s head, death’s face, the stink of rot. So said Apollo to my father, my father to me. My sisters wept. He will split my throat and take my hair to bed his den. He will lick the muscle from my bone. My sisters wailed and placed a diadem of leaves upon my head. They draped me in white robes and the plainest jewelry. On my neck, a golden seed on a string.

But each night he is feathered. His wings brush over me, and I feel fingers, legs, a chest, and skin, cold skin. His tongue slides behind my ear, his teeth graze my jaw. I see deer torn open in the fields. I smell their blood. Surely I will be consumed. His voice is a rockslide, a flame, an owl in my ear. In the morning, I find down on my stomach, a key inside my mouth.

I am here. I am endlessly here. In the days, I see no one. Invisible hands lay gowns over my arms and the breeze laces pearls into my hair. I wander the castle, puzzling the changing rooms and halls. I want to catch them shifting. The walls laugh as I stare at their corners, the echoes of dripping. Doors open as I approach them. I walk back and forth to hear them sigh for me. The sighs on the rooftop, the eyes burning behind Apollo’s Lyre.

I have thought it might be winter now, but the roses are always in bloom. I walk through them, searching for a single spider, a single strand of web. My father sought a single gift. The roses never brown or crumple. My hair does not grow. There are no birds here, no whistles in the polished air.

Each night, an abundance, things I cannot name, fruits shaped like stars, fruits thick as honey. He does not eat with me. He sits in the shadows of the long table, watching. He sighs, he cannot sup like men and will disgust me. He urges me to eat. My fingers grow sticky with the red fruit. I am endlessly here.

I stand by the river and watch the moaning specters glide past like swathes of moss. I step into the water, waiting for its poisons to turn me into lichen, but I know that even if I walk until my lungs are glutted, droplet after droplet will rise onto the shore until the water becomes flesh and draws my soul back into this earthly shape. His living wife.

The siren sings and he goes out to meet it. He will collect the dead.

The house on the lake whines and groans. The organ echoes over the water, and I wait for someone to find me. Hekate and Helios, didn’t you hear? The siren sings. When he returns, his mask is dry. The siren shows his face, he says, one final horror before death. I am not allowed to look.

He is playing endlessly, searing music through my door to burn my soul away. The caverns must collapse under this assault. When I followed him, he was a spirit, the angel of my father’s stories. I have left the world of the living. I take a lantern to my room, my room spun so finely. So many perfect gowns to dream of burning. When I followed him, his hand curled bruises into my wrist. The smell of rot. My father promised.

His wife will sit beside him a in a throne of bones and ash. I will suck rubies to the seed and drink scorpion wine. A soul spun in an opal upon each ear, hydra teeth along my breast. Each night, his feathers outside my door. Each night, it is winter. My mother beats the ground for my return. The crops are wilting in the fields. His living wife.

The rooms are shifting madly now. These starless hours are not meant for me. The halls shake gargoyles from the ceiling. Women dripping from the rafters. The turning of locks. I reach my room, and he is there, his clothing torn, his fingers smoking. He smears blood upon my door. He cannot eat like men.

The roses smell like corpses. They bloom and bloom.

There are things I must decipher. I must sort the millet from the barley, the poppy from the wheat. I must fetch gold fleece from the rams by the riverbed. Piece by piece, I put my beauty in a box that I must never open. I fold away the flush of my cheeks, wash the pomegranate from my lips. I pluck out my eyelashes and still I live. The key slices my tongue.

He stands over my bed. His shoulders smoke. His tongue in my ear. The invisible hands spread out a dress stitched of white scales, a veil of crystalline venom. They brush my nape. Does he play as wedding march or a requiem? The scorpion or the grasshopper? There are no spiders here. There are things I must decipher. The siren swims in bloody water and the bodies collect moss.

I wait until his pulse pipes music, and I tear the mask away. He screams and claws my hands into his empty face. It tears like wax. I cannot clean the skin and blood from my fingernails. Now you have looked upon death, he cries. Now you may never leave. The lantern oil falls onto his skin, sears the feathers from his wings, tears a crater into his chest. He throws me against the floor.

When he weeps at my feet, I place a hand over his head, spread my fingers along his veins. Words of love from his dead mouth. He soaks the hem of my dress, his tears trailing pus from the pits in his cheeks. His living wife. Each night he is feathered. I pound my skull against the wall until my forehead cracks, but I do not die. I drench my dress in blood. He scolds me for my carelessness.

How long have I been here? I have thought it might be winter. I must go to my room and lock the door. I must close my ears against his music. His living wife. The sepulcher shuts out all light. I am not allowed to look.

Kathleen J. Woods is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she also teaches and reads for Timber. She received a B.F.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in 2011. Her work has appeared in ArtFaccia and Cavalcade Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Paragraphiti. Find Her on Facebook and at kathleenjwoods.wordpress.com.

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