Her brother leads his wives to their deaths.
It happens like clockwork: the wife–maybe willowy and tall like the tree swaying near the mansion, brushing against the windows without scratching the glass, maybe short and compact, a package of spitfire and sass, maybe soft and curved with that childlike plumpness witches like to stir in their evening stews–marries into the family with a small wedding in the back garden, under a birch arch strung with ivy, attended by more birds than people.
It happens like clockwork: her brother tells his wife I need to run an errand, here are the keys to all of the rooms in the mansion, you may open any door except for the one leading to the underground chamber, I’ll be back in a few days and hands the silly wife a ring of keys, all shiny and new besides one–the runt, the rusted, the one that smells of old pennies and whose surface seems to flake away upon touch. The wife wanders from room to room, hesitates for a moment before prying open the final door whose hinge flap and knuckles squeak, disturbing the silence. The wife descends into the underground chamber, discovers the floor is wet, screams as she counts the corpses hanging from hooks around the room–women, some dripping blood, some not, each finer than the adjacent body. It happens like clockwork: the wife drops the key in fresh blood and quickly snatches it back up, runs out of the room without cleaning her sweaty fingerprints from the doorknob or her trail of bloodied footsteps, tries to revert to a state of mind before entering the chamber.
It happens like clockwork: her brother finds out and strangles the wife in his underground lair, the silly pigeon, the dumb dove.
You aren’t like them, he tells his sister. You’re clever.
What is cleverness? she wonders as she wrings the rag dry and hands it to her brother so he can scrub down the doorknob. The stiletto of one of the hanging corpses clatters to the ground, clumps of the original wearer’s rotting skin falling with it. She reaches out to grab the shoe and balance it back on the desiccated flesh, but he places his hand on her wrist, thumb drawing a circle around her ulnar styloid, and shakes his head like she should know better, like she is a child trying to fix a fracture with hot glue.
It’ll just fall off again. Why don’t you get changed for dinner? I’m almost done here.
She nods and walks–more like glides–to her room; her feet leave no trail of blood, a ghost in the hall.
In her room, she steps out of her dress, now a puddle of white fabric and crusted splotches of brown. She inhales the metallic scent of blood like she can absorb it into her skin. She stares at her naked body, a spidery creature–all limbs and protrusions. She reaches her hand behind her neck and touches the ridges of the vertebrae down her spine and finds the scar, a small stitch in the fabric of her skin, so imperceptible she sometimes questions its existence.
When they were kids, their parents tried to marry her off to a baron whom they owned a significant debt. Originally of modest wealth, their family suffered when their main trade of furs lost business thanks to the development of cotton. At ten years old, she learned she would marry into the sixty-year-old baron’s family as his third wife when the servants led her to not her room but the guest room where the baron, a walrus of a monocle-wearing man, sat in his bathrobe, sipping wine and balancing checker pieces between his multi-gemstone, multi-ring-adorned fingers. He beckoned her forward and wrapped his hand around her waist, slipped his fingers under the back opening of her dress. His rings grazed her skin, like ice compared to his sweaty hand. Her mouth refused to open, lips pursed, fists tight, and then, like she’d been stabbed with a hot iron, she bolted. The baron’s diamond ring scraped her back–it seared, but she shut off the pain and pulled until the dress tore under his grip and she escaped the room. To her brother’s room, where he welcomed her in, patted her on the head like she was a stuffed animal, cradled her in his arms, and let her sleep in his bed. The next day, coroners deemed the baron dead due to a heart attack–that old man had always been overweight and full of clogged arteries. And if anyone asked her brother where he was that night, he smiled and said he’d been studying in the library and no, he hadn’t even known the baron was in their home.
Her brother is clever: he makes money out of broken businesses, charms investors, sabotages competitors, and look–now they are rich, protected from unwanted suitors, eating fresh fruits even when they’re out of season, wanting for nothing. He knows to leave his tie loose for his wife to tighten, a calculated act of intimacy. He knows how to pinpoint a family’s favored daughter–the one who will inherit all the one-of-a-kind antiques, the one who will leave the family in sorrow, how to emerge from a marriage proposal with a dowry valued at twice his initial goal, how to pleasure a woman one night and strangle her for her transgressions the next.
She is not clever: she doesn’t know when men want bed warmers or conversationalists, how hot her tea is until she burns her tongue, why she hears a pulse in her ear that matches her heartbeat as she spies the wife running back upstairs, dripping blood onto the hand-spun Persian carpet.
She has tea with the wives before they open the chamber door. They gossip like teenagers at a sleepover, sitting prim and proper on four-legged chairs that are more air than wood, their backs so straight a plank must have slipped into their spines, so still they could balance encyclopedias from A to C on their heads.
Use food coloring to dye hot water yellow, the wives tell her. Pretend it’s chicken broth–men like when you have an appetite, but they don’t want it to show. The wives gesture to their hourglass figure cinched with a corset.
But brother doesn’t care for that, she tells them.
The wives snort, men–they’re all the same. Going through several bottles of wine in the evening, sloshing liquid in glasses like they think they’re professional wine tasters, spilling it over the floor so the room smells like rotten pineapple the next day–all that, we have to clean up. Best thing you can get from putting up with it is money.
What will you do with all the money? she asks.
Some of the wives want to send funds back to their childhood crushes, a forbidden romance with the poor farm boy who now works in slaughterhouses, snapping heads off chickens in well-oiled factory lines. Some want to start businesses in fashion–dresses with pockets, cushioned and padded shoes. Others dream of raising children, sending them off to prestigious boarding schools, cooking organic meals for family picnics, massaging their husband’s shoulders after a stressful day at work, comparing the number of charities they’ve donated to with the neighboring wives.
What would you do? They ask her.
Like when she was a child, splitting single meals with her family, stomach growling into the night, waiting for the next day’s charitable donation of a jug of milk and maybe a few eggs, she remembers to eat once a day and only when she faints, threatens to wither away, does her brother spoon-feed her the rich meats and sauces from the kitchen. He lets her lean into his lap, tells her about the antique ruby tiara he’ll gift her once he claims ownership over his new wife’s dowry. She moves with the same overzealous caution as she did when she was a child, every motion dictated by her fear and imagination: clowns emerge from shadows, bookshelves, barely open closets, and they squeak their red noses and try to peel her skin away, leaving her nowhere to hide; so when she walks to the library, grips a book’s spine, stitches years-old dresses back together, she keeps a candle nearby. Money, money, what can money buy?
I’m happy just helping brother, she says. It doesn’t feel like a lie.
At dinner, her brother mentions finding a new wife.
Why do you need a new wife again so soon? she asks. Aren’t I enough? She attempts to stab a grape tomato with her fork; it jumps away.
He laughs. You know you’re not wife material.
It happens like clockwork: her brother marries some country girl, the youngest of a family of six, and leaves this new wife in possession of the keys, all scintillating except for one. There’s nothing interesting behind that door, she tells the new wife over earl grey tea, repeats it several times during the conversation, implores with barely masked desperation, as she has told all the previous wives. But, like clockwork, the new wife opens the door to the underground chamber, screams, trails blood back up the stairs, over the carpet, in between crevasses of floorboards that have just begun to crack.
Her brother returns before she can finish cleaning, half-heartedly hiding the evidence. But it is not so bad, she thinks when they take care of the wife’s corpse and its aftermath–one of them rinsing rags, the other scrubbing stains–doing this together, as always.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Contrary, New Delta Review, Hypertext and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at here or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.