It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the crypt under the house when I married him. Everyone knew about the crypt, and the keys he always carried, especially the large silver key that he wouldn’t let anyone touch but made sure everyone saw.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know. And it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It’s just that I didn’t have a choice.
When you’re raised on the edge of the village near nothing but forest, and the local lord takes a shine to you, you have little choice. It’s him or the butcher’s third son, and your mother reminds you that there are three other daughters who need marrying off. And who’s going to look after her in her old age once your father is dead? So what if he’s had three previous wives? Or was it four?
If I sound sanguine, let me tell you that I wasn’t at the time. But it’s easy to be now. I’ve had time to adjust.
He had come to my house two weeks earlier to inform my mother that he intended to marry one of her daughters. And since I was the eldest, that meant me. He said he didn’t need a dowry, what he needed was a woman. A woman who could do the womanly things a man needed.
My father blushed and mumbled and muttered under his breath while my mother negotiated the terms. No dowry required, that was what he said. A yearly payment to the family to help raise the other daughters, that was what she said. A yearly payment beginning after the first year, is what he said. If she can follow my rules and do as I say and not be impudent or offensive or curious. I don’t raise curious girls, is what she said. The very idea.
It occurs to me that they should have sent my second sister who was a little slow and a little plump and very sweet, rather than me. She would readily have abandoned allinquisitiveness if she’d been told to.
But that wasn’t how it worked. The first daughter got married first, then the second, and so on unless there was a problem or a pregnancy or a death. And so, I was married off to a man who wanted a woman who wasn’t me.
My mother instructed me in the finer details of being a wife. It wasn’t as though I didn’t already have a good idea of what this meant. We lived in a village, and we had goats, and cats, and dogs, and goatherds and shepherds who’d peek under your skirt if they were given half a chance. But she told me, and then whacked me a good one for complaining.My sisters giggled, and my father rushed from the house to go down to the tavern, such as it was.
She told me to keep my thoughts and my questions to myself.
If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you that it was raining on my wedding day. That it was storming and thundering, a reflection of my mood. But I didn’t feel those things, andanyway it wasn’t storming. It was a perfect summer’s day, and the sky was clear, shining on the wheat ripening in the fields. I was uncomfortable in a green dress, silver embroidered, that he had brought for me three days beforehand, and I had needed to eat constantly to fit into it for it was too large. None of us questioned its origins, or why it wasn’t the right size.
One ceremony later, I was standing in the doorway of my new home feeling bloated in theover-large dress. My new husband showed me around my new life. He showed me proudly around the manor as though I hadn’t been there every year for annual harvest celebration with dancing and a bonfire. He showed me to the kitchen where I would work alongside the cook, and he showed me to my parlour where I could sew and mend and weave. He told me this would keep me busy, prevent me from becoming too nosy. I asked what I ought not be nosy about, and he glared. He beckoned me to follow, and we descended into the cold store below the kitchens, down a long corridor where there was a door, and he told me that this was off limits. He showed me the large silver key on his keyring, and said that this was the key to the door, and I should stay away from it if I knew what was best for me.
Then he showed me his body which was not as bad as it could’ve been. He was tall, and although he was older than most men I knew, he was powerful and cared for himself. He rode every day, and he hunted for our meat. And back when we were at war, he rode to war with the king, or so he said.
He’d tell me to admire beautiful things, as he stood in front of the long mirror staring at himself, petting his silver beard, which they called blue down in the village though I don’t know why. He’d run his fingers over his muscled stomach and broad shoulders. He would point to items in the house or to things that we saw as we rode in the country, commenting on their prettiness. He stroked the horses, whispering to them that they were handsome.
I stopped expecting the same treatment.
Everything was provided, asked and unasked. Dresses, tableware, food. Anything that a country lord could provide to his lowborn wife. It seemed to please him, to see his silver flow out, beauty flow in. He liked me dressed in bright colours, large garments. He said it made me easier to see. He told me not to question his taste.
I asked him about his wealth, once. I asked him about his family, once. I stopped asking after that, due to the reminder that he would not give my family a single solitary ducat if I didn’t keep my curiosity to myself, and also because I couldn’t talk for a solid week due to my swollen lip.
I sewed in my parlour, reducing the size of the dresses provided, and later increasing them again. I mended my husband’s clothing. I wandered around the house looking at portraits. I helped in the kitchen. I tried talking to the cook, but that led nowhere. At first, I thought maybe she was reluctant to talk to me. Then I saw that she had the mark on her finger of an old wedding band, and thought perhaps she’d taken a vow of silence. But also, she always made me handle the meat whenever we had tongue for dinner. My husband loved to eat tongue.
If my sisters came for a visit, I might talk with them. But they came less and less, scared by the quiet of the house, and busy with their own lives. They would shush me if I asked after the gossip of the village. They knew the rules.
A year in, and the silver began to flow from my husband to my family, and my sistersbegan to find husbands. My mother praised my husband, and I said nothing very much. There was nothing to say. She asked when I would have a baby, and I said curiositywasn’t welcome here. She hit me with her walking stick and left.
At this point, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that I began talking to the ghosts.
Though they never appeared when he was about the house, when he was away there would always be one or two in the kitchen or near the fire blazing in the hearth. It seemed as though they were looking for warmth. They would join me in my parlour, though they always seemed a little paler, a little less solid, up so high in the house. I would provide a chair for whichever of them would join me as I stitched. Their naked, silvery outlines shone in the light from the fire. Though silent as the grave, they took no issue with my chatter, one-sided thought it might be.
I kept my new friends to myself. There was nothing more dangerous than being considered a witch, after all.
And, anyway, who would I tell?
My husband made regular visits to somewhere else – he never told me where, and I forgot and asked only the once, but my arm recovered. I was not invited on these sojourns, but was left in charge of the household whilst he travelled. He would solemnlyhand me his keys, large and heavy, keys that unlocked every door, drawer, and moneybox we had. The first time he did this, I handed him the large silver key back, suggesting that it was too beautiful for him to part with. He nodded gravely, stroked it gently, then handed it back saying that it belonged with the others, that it would beautify the things around it. I thought maybe he meant me.
I was cautious. I was demure. I was the very picture of civility, and verity, and sense, if not beauty. His first trip away, I spoke to no one but the cook, who silently glared back, and had no one to visit. It wasn’t until his fifth journey, and my second year of marriage, that I began to hold parties. These were not for friends or family, as I had none of the former and the latter were disinclined.
They were parties for the ghosts.
A house devoid of my husband, with cook abed, and an abundance of port and cakes I had earlier prepared. I would call to the ghosts, invite them out from below the kitchens, where I had noticed they often appeared. We would dance in the hall, and, and I would drink and laugh and make myself merry. But I had to hide the keys, for once one of them saw the large silver key and tried to take it with her insubstantial hands, to pull the keys towards the crypt, and I had to snatch them back and it ruined our night of fun.
It was after one of these evenings of merriment that he found me, keys in hand, at the end of the corridor under the kitchens. I had no memory of arriving at the forbidden door, or of sleeping on the cold hard floor. I have since had time to consider this, and have decided that one of the ghosts must have ridden me like a horse after too much drink, though none have admitted to it.
My husband was all fury and spite as he came upon me. It was not much more than his silver blue beard that I saw, and not what was in his hand. The heat of my blood and the pounding in my head quickly decreased, however, in the cold of the room into which I was thrown. He stood in the doorway, and I lay on the floor, seeing now the room forbidden, lit by his lantern, and the others splayed as I was and would forever be. He glared as I perished, and nodded satisfied when I had fully departed. I am saddened now by the small thrill I felt to have finally pleased him in some way.
He grunted to the ghosts, myself now included, that we should leave his next woman be. He stripped me of the green and silver-thread dress and departed.
I am curious about the new girl upstairs. I wonder if she has had to take the dresses in, or let them out. We have long discussed whether it would be better for her if she knew us not and whether there might be a way to warn her. For how long until she too follows that silver key?
It is getting a little crowded down here.