My new wife Linnea is a young woman of eighteen summers. She has deep copper hair, the glowing, shimmering quality of which the masters could only approximate, and freckles dot her cheeks. She was a farmer’s daughter in a quiet province far from the spirit of my usual hunting grounds, and when I saw her dancing through the fields one fine sunrise, I charmed her and her family and spirited her away as quickly as I could, the scent of wheat and lavender still on her tanned skin. We live alone together in the middle of the woods, in the sprawling mansion I had built from marble and brick and mortar what seems like centuries ago. It’s a private joke of mine that it’s the ivy and the air, heavy with somber regality, that keeps my home standing, as much as the foundation does. The nearest source of supplies is a small village off the beaten path. My butler is the one who goes to the market on weekends for fresh groceries, dressed in unassuming greys. If I went, I would raise questions, so I only visit the city on occasion to maintain my business contacts, sell my paintings, and bring back trinkets for my wife. The butler is so subtle sometimes even my eyes miss him. I couldn’t recall the color of his eyes if asked, only his pale, smug smile, slight and uneasy, as if he knows a secret that you don’t. He is my oldest friend living, the only person I can trust.
My wife and I live alone together in a mansion in the middle of the woods, by a clear-skinned lily pond, and she fills up the marble halls with life and laughter.
“Show me your paintings,” she might request one day, and I’ll open the heavy door of the very center room of the house and give her a tour of my personal gallery and studio. This time, she is wondering and wondrous, praising my skill for the lifelike in excited whispers that force me to lean closer to hear her. I remind her she is not to touch anything here without my invitation, even to look without my presence—the sanctity of my art and such.
The bookcase is out of place from my last visit. I must be neater.
Other days, when I bring back gifts, Linnea will clap her hands at the marvels and wrap her arms around me. Her favorites are the exotic threads I gather for her, precious metals drawn to fit into the eye of a needle, spools dyed rich blues and greens from powdered lapis and aquamarine.
I make it my duty to keep her amused so that she does not ever ask to leave me. It is dangerous (for me) for her to visit the outside world. I invent tragedies and coincidences to explain why her family never answers her letters; I create grand thefts, natural disasters, and sinister plots within the machinations of mortal bureaucracies. She must stay hidden. I almost can’t bear her tears.
Despite these restrictions, it must be impossible for her to be bored. I’d hoped she was illiterate, but she can spend hours in the tales I keep in my cozy library, hundreds of tomes collected over dusty decades, since books were invented. In there, perhaps, is my story, but I cannot remember it to know it if I stumbled across it. I find it difficult to define myself at present, or to agree with my past definitions. I am an anachronism, and my legend grows beyond my own invention. I am a wordsmith: I know how any twist of the tongue can be altered until it becomes another truth entirely.
In these warm autumn days, Linnea can wander the courtyards for hours, gathering flowers in her arms or picking fruit from sagging vines to sink her teeth into. The birds and the other creatures, as if remembering past mistresses, will eat from her hands. She is Snow White, this is her prince’s castle, and the witches I keep far away.
I visited the city to meet some patrons and to sell a new piece, a dark-haired lady I remember fondly from my younger years. In the painting, she is reclining forever on a comfortable rock, resting by the lily pond, her favorite haunt. She is feeding the koi fish she brought herself from her birthplace, but her eyes are half-shut and her chin is tilted upward to catch the rogue light that filters through the beech trees. In the painting, she looks only at the bone-white blooms and not through the glassy waters. She nevers muddies her fingers with roots and what else lies beneath, and we stay happy.
With my return home, I bring back a whirring new invention for my wife, a model carousel that, when turned on its base, plays carnival music. The animals bob up and down perpetually, until the movement and the music slows to a halt, until the carousel is wound up again. I don’t want children—I am certain they would leave me, as children are inclined to do—but in daydreams I imagine I would install a machine just like this for them on the grounds.
Linnea winds the toys up with a small twist and smiles faintly.
“How do you like it?” I ask.
“It’s wonderful. A marvel.” But she turns back to her needle and the golden thread I’d once obtained for her, skeining together a scene of a wheat field at sunset that looks suspiciously like the farm in her old home. The music is slowing, stopping. I stare at a scabbed scratch on her left index finger.
“I wish my little sister could see it. She’d love the music.” She pauses, looking up at me. “Maybe we could visit soon? If it would be too much of an inconvenience to you, I could go alone.”
“Oh, please don’t ask. You know you can’t. It’s getting more dangerous every day.”
Lips pursing, Linnea nods slowly. “I just miss them. And I worry about them, if we can’t even send letters back and forth in these conditions.”
“I’m sure things will get better soon. At least we have each other, right?” I pick up the carousel and wind it up again. The notes of a lively waltz leap from it. “Come on, let’s dance and not worry. You’re safe here.”
I’ll accept no input. I take my wife’s hand and pull her to her feet. Luckily she doesn’t resist, but she almost drops her embroidery. Her laughter rings out like the highest church bell, accidentally a little muffled in the marble room. We spend the rest of the day in each other’s company, the butler bringing out his violin after our dinner to amuse us as the night grows colder and colder. We listen and drink steaming tea with a hint of the freshness of Queen Anne’s Lace, as I’ve always instructed.
My newest wife cradles the cup to herself for warmth. Her skin is beginning to pale with the winter, no matter how much she wanders the grounds or sits by the window embroidering in the watery afternoon light.
I trace the similarities between ballrooms and tombs.
One day, she intrudes into my painting room, restless with the chill of the outside and the dessicated flowers in the drawing room. Unless she’s moving, she can’t stand being far from the fireplaces with the snow so thick.
“I’ve been looking for you. What have you been up to for so long?” she asks, wrapping her thin fingers in mine.
I don’t answer. I’m staring at a painting rather fondly, remembering—my fourth acquisition, a blonde with wide green eyes.
“Who is this?” she demands. She drops my hand and crosses her arms.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” I remind her, turning to frown at her. “The center room, I’ve told you, is my private workspace.”
“I asked you, who is this?”
“An old muse of mine,” I reply lightly, but she’s already seething.
“I can’t let this go on any longer. You shut yourself in your room for hours painting these women, in all sorts of poses. Tell me, what’s inspiring you? Your monthly trips off to the city while I’m stuck here in the middle of nowhere?”
“My darling Evalyn—”
“My name’s not Evalyn,” she interrupts petulantly.
She was my second wife, my sweetest, with the same shade of shining hair. I recover myself with practiced ease. “She was a heroine in one of Hardy’s works. Or maybe Shakespeare. It’s in my library somewhere. A bit simple, but so charming that when she got herself into trouble, her husband followed her into the underworld to rescue her.” A clean reminder to Linnea of who she is, what she was born into, and what she is expected to be. “Linnea, I swear on my honor that I could never forget my love for you, nor yours for me. Not for one unfaithful second.”
At this point in my existence, it’s a light promise, easily compromisable. I have broken it enough to feel only the smallest pang of guilt.
I wipe a tear from her cheek, but she catches my hand in hers. “Don’t. Please.” Her voice comes through clenched teeth, but I can detect her indecision.
“Linnea, Linnea.” I wrap my other arm around her waist, pulling her closer. “There’s nothing wrong here. If you’d like I’ll paint you—however you’d like to be painted.” I trail kisses down her cheek, across her neck, exactly where I would slit her throat if I had to. “I’ll paint you with me, like this. We’ll go out to the forest caves together tomorrow. We’ll drink and have a good time, like we always do. We’ll dive to the grottoes. We’ll do a thousand impossible things. Right?” I’m whispering into her ear, her skin, her soft bright eyes, anything that might listen.
She doesn’t respond, only presses herself against me and kisses me with the captive desperation I so love to cultivate, and I know I’ve won again.
It’s dinner time. Though spring has melted the ice and brought the sun back in, as of late, Linnea has been moody, asking about visiting the city or going on vacation. Of course we cannot. I’m not supposed to have a wife; it would ruin my image among my supporters. No matter how much I try to please Linnea, she is so ungrateful. She is tiring of my marble mansion and its many delights. She gathers the peas to the side of her soup bowl and spears them on her fork, one by one.
“Are you going to eat anything? You’re getting so thin.”
“There’s no one to see me except you and the butler, isn’t there?”
“Evalyn—” I stop, then hurriedly continue, “of my dreams, my heart song, please calm down.”
“I’ve read every book in your library. There is no mention of an Evalyn.”
“You must have missed something.”
“No, I certainly haven’t.”
I should change the topic, but I’m stuck on how wrong this is. It isn’t supposed to go like this. “Maybe the tale’s been lost—”
“I can’t bear this any more. You’re so melodramatic, like you’re pretending to be the hero of some half-price romance. But if anything, you’re the villain. So possessive. So controlling. You refuse to own up to your mistakes. And I’ve had quite enough. I’ve asked someone to take me away from here.” She pushes her chair back and turns away, the heels of her slippers clacking down the marble floor.
It can’t be over yet. It never ends like this, like leaving. Love is supposed to be forever, until it’s not.
“Linnea, I’m sorry,” I stride after her, but she shuts the door of my sitting room in my face, and I hear the click of the lock.
I don’t bother trying the doorknob. I stalk off to my own rooms to think. I want to weep, really; heartbreak has always been such a sore spot for me, since the first. But of course this can’t be the end. A plan is weaving itself together in my head.
The next day, I find her standing at the end of the long hallway of my collection, amidst the grinning skulls of my past wives. She’s tracing a finger along a placard, reading the label, maybe. When she hears my approach, she turns around like startled rabbit, her eyes darting around for an escape.
“My apologies. My curiosity was tempted one last time. It’s a fine… antique collection.”
I shut the door to my main painting room behind me, lock the door, and tuck the key into my front pocket.
Feigning calmness, she walks toward the entrance to the hallway. “I have all my bags packed. Before I leave, I just want to say that I did love you—”
“You aren’t supposed to be here. Oh, Evalyn, Beatrice, An, Yasmin, Nyala, Linnea, everyone, what’s the difference? You all betray me in the end.”
The knife in my hand has a good heft to it. It will be quick and efficient: a slash to the throat, and then the fireplace is so close. I breathe a sigh of regret: this one hadn’t even been here a year. I should have set my sights on someone with less of a brain.
“The butler! He told me to come here. He said I needed to see something. Please, just let me go. I won’t say anything.” Even now, the begging can still make me grin.
“What would I gain from that? I asked the butler to guide you here, so you would find my secret. And you will stay here.
“Why? Why would you risk that? You’re insane.”
“Because the last betrayal must be the greatest. If love must be ended, it must happen tragically, with some pageantry. Ceremony. Nothing mundane like sneaking off to a village to find someone with a cart to carry your things. The beauty isn’t supposed to fall out of love with the beast, you see.”
“I think you’re trying for the wrong fairytale—there’s another one—”
Her courage or her desperation gathered, she lunges for my arm. She’s trying to twist the knife out of my hand. Her nails claw at my throat. I’m sure my shins will be bruised, but as expected, I get her into a headlock.
The knife is quick and efficient. I let her drop to the stone floor. Even now there is something wonderful about the gentle curves and angles of her body, contorted wrongly, life taking the impression of death. It is almost beautiful enough to inspire a painting. But I have prep work to do now, and I can’t let this scarlet puddle on my floor.
Time has slipped away from me. The forest seems to be thinning, the village becoming a town. I worry that my old tricks may fail in these changing days, but I think I have a few decades before my rules and my story are truly broken, before there is too much world for me to live like this. Still, the lily pond, as always, is deep and clear, though I must plant new lilies.
On windy summer days, I like to take refuge in my painting room, deep in the center of the house. Sometimes I open up my hallway to engage in a little nostalgia, but even alone, I make certain it remains locked when it’s not in use, and the bookshelf is pulled over it.
I imagine they are all still alive, waiting for me to return, every time I leave them. Whether or not this is true, their lovely remains must stay hidden and safe; the truth is a slippery beast, and I must keep it caged, or it will come back to bite me.
My newest wife is a young woman around twenty years of age. I hope we will have a long and happy life together.