I opened my eyes and beheld a face I knew from long ago. Like a dream, I’d mostly forgotten.
It was dark outside. In contrast, the lantern’s light was painful to look at.
So were his eyes, illuminated brightly against his pallid skin. He was more worn than I remembered; ashen, faded, lined. He’d been neglected.
“Darling,” he exclaimed, face blank with shock, clearly more startled than anything. After several blinks, he grabbed me by the shoulders and clutched me to his breast.
That’s when I realized I was alive: when the pain came. It was the bending of aged logs until they started to break; the stretching taught of crusty linens; the disturbing of artifacts preserved by time and not touched in eons.
I screamed, or rather groaned, but it came out as a puff of stale air.
“My love,” I scraped as he continued to torture me with his fervent embrace. “What is this?”
“It’s life!” he positively cooed, relinquishing his hold on my shoulder. Unprepared, I fell back into the pile of leaves from whence I came. “Can you smell the autumn air? Do you—” And he grabbed me again, this time by the wrist.
I mustered the strength to flick him off, though I could not yet raise my head. He seemed not to notice.
“Do you feel the breath in your lungs?”
“It hurts,” I insisted. “Take me back to the lake.” I admit that in those preliminary moments, my mind had not quite caught up.
“You’re delusional,” he muttered, inspecting my arms and legs, taking my pulse, impersonating a doctor. “There’s no lake.”
But there was a lake. Understand that to this day, I have ongoing trouble with now and then, here and there. At times, I can still feel the calm, warm water caressing my calves.
“The lake!” I insisted. I sat bolt upright, and a thrilling jolt of pain shot through my skull, behind my eye. I clutched my forehead. “I was just there.”
“Darling.” He cupped my elbow, stern and gentle. The earnest slant of his face was a pang from a past life. “There’s no lake. Look around you.”
I looked around me. The ground alternated dull brown and muted green; clumps of orange leaves clung to trees. We were in a familiar place that felt unrelated to me, like I’d only ever seen paintings of it.
“A graveyard,” I said.
“We’ve been here before.”
He nodded with the slow patience of a schoolteacher. “Your mother’s funeral,” he provided.
I nodded with the slow comprehension of a schoolchild. “The graveyard where my mother is buried.”
“Who else was buried here?” he asked, quite gentle. For the briefest moment, he was as I remembered. The steady magnificence of his intellect. The pleasant proddings of his tutelage. In silence, he pointed beside us.
I turned to behold the nearest grave, closer than I’d expected. It had been dug up, the crisp oak coffin discarded irreverently, its lid flipped some feet away. The name on the fresh tombstone was my own, along with some dates and the mundane phrase Devoted daughter, sister, citizen. Somehow, I wasn’t at all surprised. I was reading a book and realizing I’d read at least this far before.
“So you have done this thing,” I muttered, pulling leaves absently from my hair.
“It’s only been a fortnight,” he insisted. “You look lovely.”
“Do you remember?” I asked suddenly, because I had only just remembered myself. I clutched my knees in their crusty skirts close to my chest. “What I said to you? In those final moments?”
A glare of anger crossed his face. His face does not wear anger well. “Don’t remind me.”
“I knew I was dying,” I persisted. “I asked you to let me go. To pray, and to forgive me, and to let me go.”
A peculiar silence consumed us, and the entire graveyard as well. A pregnant pause, one might say. My lips pressed together tightly, wondering how a dead person might die again, for I had already nearly forgotten this life and grown used to the next. His mouth opened and closed, gasping for understanding, as he stroked his beard by reflex.
“I did better than that,” he said. “I brought you back.”
I heaved myself to my feet. The pain was less now; it had become something I would live with instead of something I would die from.
“You stink of dark magic,” I snapped, and it was true. It was a stench I never would have noticed before, but now that I had thrice passed through life’s door, coming and going and coming again, it was unmistakable. The pungent, organic, almost scientific decay of the damned. I wanted to be lakeside once more, even if the lake was a symptom of death, collecting seashells with my mother and writing letters to my love. “’Tis the stench of death.”
I strode away, eager to move far from this first, awkward step of my reanimation and approach the next. Perhaps I would return to my father, to see if he considered me, in this form, to be his daughter. Perhaps I would go to church to see if I could be saved, or perhaps I’d be lucky and would burn upon crossing the threshold. Perhaps I would fling myself from a tall bridge.
The leaves shattered under his feet as he lunged and grabbed me by my sleeve. I had not the strength to resist. I’d been dead for weeks.
I turned my face to him but did not stop walking; the gate of the cemetery was beckoning to me. I would settle for my old world, for the time being, my old home, if I could not reach the lake.
“Darling,” he said levelly, as if it might ground me in some way. “Magic, yes. But dark? It brought you back to me. Where is the darkness in that?”
“You’ve totally violated the laws of nature,” I said. “And I can smell it all over you.”
Right then and there, he began emptying his pockets of all sorts of mess, tossing items onto the grass. Herbs, mysterious vials, trinkets that once belonged to me.
“Is that better?” he asked, shaking out his coat to demonstrate its emptiness. “I can bathe at home.”
“It’s not that kind of smell.”
He shook his head in resignation, either deciding that I had lost a part of my brain on the other side, or accepting his own foul stench.
“Let’s go to my house,” he said softly, extending an arm to me like he used to. I’ll admit, we were faced off like an outlaw versus the sheriff, right in the center of the street like children hollering over a stolen toy. “We can talk in comfort by the fire.”
I deigned to accept his outstretched arm, and we settled into our old walk. A mild countenance came easily to my face as we went, but it felt wrong. It was someone else’s face.
As we stepped out from the dry grass of the cemetery and onto the hard, black pavement, I felt I was leaving something important behind. Not the hole in the ground from which I had come; not the eternal slumber I had been locked in; not the worms who had missed out on a good meal. I felt I was leaving home; I felt I was walking away from myself.
My heels clicked on the sidewalk in a way I had forgotten. Their sound echoed down the street. I could not stand to be so loud, so I stepped onto the grass. Though my small heels sunk in with every step, I persisted.
“You must be freezing,” he said suddenly, releasing me to remove his coat.
I put a hand out, strong and commanding, the way my father used to. “I’m not.” Besides—and I refrained from reminding him—I couldn’t bear the odor clinging to its fabric.
“But it’s November,” he argued.
“I’m not cold,” I said simply. And I wasn’t. The breeze swept through my skirts and hair and caressed my bare skin. I reveled in the delightful movement of the air, and yet I was warm.
Bless his heart, he attempted a weak chuckle. “There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.” And he yanked his jacket back onto his shoulders.
It was undeniably quite late at night, for we passed not a soul save for a few rogue cats on the street. Of course, he would have waited to commit his act until the city was asleep. I had never been out at such an hour; it was enthralling, like misbehaving. And yet a little sad, like beholding the face of a loved one who has passed away.
His townhouse was where I remembered it being, and I showed myself up the stoop and inside.
“Where’s your butler?” I asked. The table in the entryway was filthy with clutter, and no one greeted us at the door.
“I dismissed him,” he said, waving it off. I saw no logic in his having let his butler go, and the grimy evidence of his poor decision lay before me, but I carried on in silence.
I had not been gone so long that anything else had changed. The dusty flowers in the foyer, the cluttered kitchen, the grand wingback armchair before the fire. His home was a bachelor’s paradise, all utility and no beauty. I had once been the person who would change that. Was I still?
I looked down at my leftmost fingers, the diamond ring pulling my attention like a magnet. He grasped my hand in his, and I turned to behold his face, slowly drawing the connection. The ring. The man. The man had given me the ring.
“What of this?” I asked, raising the ring and the finger and the hand to his meet eyes. “Is this why you brought me back?”
He took my bejeweled hand and kissed it, gazing at me from under his lashes in that way men do when they mean to be endearing. With a palm on the small of my back, he steered me toward the couch, and we sat.
“Darling,” he said stiffly. “Of course, I brought you back to marry me. That was always our plan.”
It was a plan from long ago, like the rules to a game from my youth that would only make sense to a child. My only plan was to return to my lake; even today, I seek the path to get back there.
“Darling,” he said again. Then, to optimize his dramatization, he swept off the couch, coattails whipping, and knelt before me, in the genuflection of a prayer. “I would do anything for you. I’ve done all this for you. All I’ve ever wanted is to be with you. Will you still have me?”
It was embarrassing to witness. When I didn’t answer fast enough, he elaborated: “We can carry on with the wedding as planned, on Christmas Eve. Or we can do it later if you need time to refresh yourself.”
I did indeed need time to refresh myself. “Excuse me,” I said, and I stood. “Powder room.”
Confusion passed darkly over his fair face for just a moment. Then, determined and resigned all at once, he stood aside. I tried to do something friendly as I passed. My hand twitched at the echo of a thousand memories of grazing his beard with my fingertips. And yet I could not make myself do anything more than lock eyes with him as I skirted around him.
My fingers trailed along the wallpaper as I took the familiar route to his first-floor bathroom. I had walked these halls many times before; sometimes I came with Papa or my aunt, sometimes with one of the cousins; sometimes I came alone, though I’d never tell.
The dark, cool tiles of the powder room embraced me, and I closed the door without first feeling for the lamp. I could do all I needed in the dark. I braced myself on the sink, devoured a few oversized breaths, and pressed my clenched fists into my stomach. The room was going spotty. I grew dizzy.
Fanning myself, I sat on the toilet, its chain clouting me across the face. He cleared his throat in the living room. I clutched my skirts and counted my breaths.
“Are you alright?” he called.
“Yes, my love,” I called back breathlessly. “Just a minute.”
I arranged myself in order, first my spirit, then my hair, and then my dress. I even opened the door to let in the light from the lamp in the hall, so I could better inspect myself in the mirror. The reflection showed a person who was clearly me; and yet, I didn’t know her. It reminded me of when I used to get quite drunk, once or twice a year, by accident. Inevitably, I would excuse myself for personal reasons, just like this, and make eye contact with myself in the mirror despite my better judgment. I always felt it was my duty to chastise the person I saw before me, though I knew, in the end, it would do no good.
My face was as I remembered, round and freckled with that nose. The dress was one I’d worn many times before, my favorite formal outfit, burgundy and lace. But all these things I struggled to place within my own life. All these things I’d left behind.
I leaned in close, to better look myself in the eyes. My cheeks were flushed with blood that had been dead until an hour ago.
I burst into the hallway but could not bear the thought of his eager expression, his manic eyes. The kitchen was lit well enough from its one lamp, and I took a stroll around the butcher’s block in the center, seeking something that might truly feel familiar deep inside me. A sip of wine. A bite of bread.
There it lay, in all its glory: a half-loaf of bread that smelled vaguely of rye. Wishing I could remember the old butler’s name, I grabbed a knife from its block and cut myself a slice. The taste cannot be described: it was the flavor of every loved one’s home, every cook who ever liked you, every warm night spent doing simple things.
As I chewed slowly, I set the rest of the slice down and pressed the tip of the knife into my palm. It was a bread knife: serrated, so it would require more than the usual effort to break skin. How much pressure would it take to draw blood? Would that blood look the same as I remembered? Or would it be old, black, and decayed?
I swallowed slowly, wondering how a dead person might die again.
“What are you doing?”
I gasped. The knife fell. He grabbed my wrists and pulled me toward the door. His brown boot kicked the knife, and it sliced across the floor.
“Can I not leave you alone?” he demanded, leading me back to the living room. He’d lit a fire, which was aesthetically pleasing; a fire represented all the brilliance of this, the real world. There had been no need for a fire at the lake; the water was always warm, the sun always bright. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with you?” was the only reply I could muster. My mind was still hazy, like the morning after too many drinks.
“Always so headstrong,” he snapped, glaring at me. “When will you learn that you can’t do whatever you want? There are consequences, darling.”
“I died,” I told him. “From causes beyond my own actions. Sometimes there are consequences; sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes awful things just happen for no reason.”
“Do not presume to philosophize me,” he said, letting go of my arms at last. “You will come to see, once you’ve recovered yourself. You’ll understand the sacrifices I’ve made for you. You’ll see how far I’ve come in these short weeks.”
I grabbed his wrists with both my hands, looking down. I wished I was wearing gloves.
Calming his speech, he said, “I’ve done more for you than any of your friends’ husbands would do for them. I love you. I love you, and now I have you back, right where I want you.”
I could feel the blood rushing through the veins of his wrist; I could see the heat in his eyes. He was impassioned; he was bearing himself unto me; he was not holding back.
He was not the one I’d left behind. This man was not the silent strength I’d come to expect pressing back against my whims. He neither bit his tongue nor quelled the nervous agitations of his body. He spoke without thinking and moved without planning.
In a brief fortnight, he had become something new.
“My love,” I whispered, withdrawing my hand from his and clutching both of mine to my sternum. “You stink of dark magic.”
I stood then, seeing nothing else to do. He watched as I smoothed my skirts and crossed the room. It was only when I lay my hand on the door frame that he called out.
“Darling,” he said. It had equal parts command and resignation. “Where are you going?”
It was then I realized I had no plan, so I shrugged. “My father’s. I need . . . counsel.”
“I can give you counsel,” he offered.
“No, you can’t,” I explained, or attempted to. Then, with a small wave, I left. To his credit, he didn’t follow.