by Naomi J. Williams
Of course Anna said yes when they offered her the position. It meant the difference between destitution and a more restful old age for her mother. It meant all of her siblings going to school in shoes, with lunchboxes, until they graduated. It meant having her own room and bathroom. She might have said yes for that alone.
Strange rumors had swirled around the estate for years. Rumors always swirl around old families. But Anna hadn’t seen anything untoward at the interview. Except their wealth, of course. Ancient carved lions at the front gate. Curving marble staircases outlined by mahogany banisters. Resplendent chandeliers hanging from coffered ceilings. Peacocks wandering the lawns. Peacocks!
The man who interviewed her never introduced himself. He might have been the man of the house, the family accountant, a steward, a butler—not that she knew the difference between the last two. They needed someone to replace a servant nearing retirement, he said. Anna would work with the older woman until she was ready to take over her duties.
“You need nerves of steel here,” he said.
She told him that she took care of her mother and her siblings when they were sick, which was often.
“Steelier than that,” he said.
She told him that she gutted the fish and skinned the rabbits her brothers brought home and wrung the necks of the chickens herself.
He stared back at her, impassive. So she told him that when her father was shot in the street she had tried to stanch the blood with her bare hands, then reached into his shattered chest to try to massage his heart back to life.
“That’s what I mean,” he said.
“That wasn’t nerve,” she told him. “That was love.”
He handed her an envelope containing more money than she’d ever seen at one time. He showed her out through the rear entrance—“This is the door you’ll use from now on,” he said—and had a driver take her home to give the money to her mother and say her good-byes.
• • •
She did not live on the third floor with the other servants. A silent footman showed her to the second floor and delivered her to Ursula, the old servant she’d been hired to replace, a wide-hipped woman with a wiry gray braid down her back.
The tiny room in which Ursula installed her had originally been a closet. Her bed was a narrow monastic cot tucked under a narrower window, a window that let in a draft at night. Anna smiled to think that even in rich people’s homes, windows leaked. But it was her own tiny room, attached to her own, even tinier, bathroom, and she was content for the present.
Ursula occupied a larger room across the hall. “It will be yours before long, if you prove yourself,” she told Anna.
At first her only task was delivering meals. She would take the back stairs to the kitchen, where the head cook would pass her a lacquered tray arrayed with dainty dishes of dainty food. Anna would make her careful way upstairs, knock on the double oak doors across from her room and next to Ursula’s, and hand the tray to Ursula, who always opened the door just wide enough to admit the tray. Thirty minutes later, Anna would knock again, retrieve the tray, and return it to the kitchen. Five times a day: breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and something called a nightcap, which turned out not to be a hat worn to bed but a drink, often served with a tiny saucer of nuts or chocolates.
The trays amused her, comprised exactly as one might imagine for consumption by the filthy rich: soft-boiled eggs perched on their own porcelain cups; tea steeping in flowery English teapots; demure squares of cucumber sandwich, crusts surgically removed, topped with parsley and arranged on gilt-edged plates; whole quail hiding under silver domes; jewel-toned drinks served in cordial glasses.
She wished she could regale her family with descriptions of these trays. She wished she could fling one down the marble staircase just to hear the music that metal, bone china, and crystal might make on cold stone.
“Good girl,” Ursula told her once, receiving a tea tray. “You have steady hands.”
It was true. But her care seemed pointless, for the person behind the double doors, the person Ursula attended to all day, broke things all the time. The lacquered tray was often handed back to Anna with a cracked teacup, two halves of a platter, forks with bent tines, or all the food smashed up together, as if an angry baby had been at it.
She knew it was no child. The delicate plates, the fussy meals, the food left uneaten: a woman lived behind the oak doors, a woman who could not or would not leave the room.
• • •
Between mealtimes, Anna wandered the unpeopled rooms and corridors of the great house. She liked the library, with its decadent aromas of leather and cigar smoke and passions trapped between book covers. Sometimes she ventured through the back door and explored the outbuildings and gardens and woods. Sometimes she sat in one of the unattended automobiles. The doors were always unlocked, keys left in the glove compartment.
No one ever stopped her. Not, she decided, because she was permitted free range over the estate but because no one dared speak to her. A village worth of people worked the place, footmen and chambermaids, gardeners and farmhands and mechanics—but they remained strangers. Eventually she began taking books from the library up to her closet. Eventually she figured out how to turn on the cars, then make them go and stop and turn and reverse. At dusk, when no one else was out, she’d take one for a spin around the property.
The only people she interacted with were Ursula, the cook, and occasionally, the man who’d hired her.
Early on he had accosted her and Ursula in the corridor and asked how things were going.
“She’ll do, I think,” Ursula said. “Incurious, which is good.”
Anna tried not to smile.
“You don’t have any questions?” the man said.
“Yes,” she said. “Whose room is that?” She pointed to the double doors.
“It’s the Mrs.’s, of course,” Ursula said brusquely, as if Anna should have known.
Mrs.’s, Anna repeated in her head. Missuses.
And this, she thought, looking at the man, must be the Mister. He was not nearly as old as she’d thought at first. He had a full head of hair, curly and dark except for a bit of gray at the temples. Care more than time had aged him, she decided.
• • •
She grew impatient to assume her proper role in the house. Really she just wanted Ursula’s room. It boasted an east-facing window, a small dining table where she and Ursula took silent meals together, a real bed, and a door that communicated directly with the unseen Mrs.’s room. But Ursula didn’t seem eager to leave her position or her room. Now that she had someone to climb the stairs with the food trays, she appeared satisfied.
One night a commotion woke Anna from her cot under the drafty window. She rushed out to the corridor, fearing a fire. The double doors opposite were wide open, a steady wail issuing from the darkness within. Ursula stood in the doorway in a nightgown, her gray locks spilling out of an old-fashioned sleep bonnet. Well, there’s the nightcap, Anna thought, but then another tall oak door opened down the corridor. The Mister emerged and ran toward them. He stopped when he noticed Anna, at which Ursula noticed her too.
“Back in your room,” Ursula hissed. “You’re not even dressed!”
“We might need her,” the Mister said.
Ursula shook her head. “She’s not ready.” Grasping his arm, she drew him into the room and shut the heavy doors behind them.
Anna remained in the corridor as the wailing continued. She considered the way Ursula had grabbed the man of the house and pulled him into the room. She thought about the older woman judging her as unready. An hour passed before the doors finally opened again. By then the wailing had ceased. Only the Mister stepped out. He looked drawn and pale. Blood stained his shirt.
He jumped when she spoke, then stared through her thin nightgown. “Aren’t you cold?”
She laughed. Even exhausted by emergency, a man will notice a woman’s body. “Did she have a baby?” she asked.
“No,” he said, “nothing like that.”
“When am I taking over for Ursula?”
He regarded her with eyes too spent even to register pity. “Trust me,” he said. “Whenever it happens, it will have been too soon.”
• • •
A month later, when Ursula tripped in the corridor, she yowled with such vigor that even the chambermaids who avoided that wing came running. Anna reached her first.
“Get the doctor,” Ursula ordered hoarsely.
“What doctor?” Anna said, kneeling beside her. “Will cook know who to call?”
“The doctor, you foolish child,” Ursula said, then resumed yelling, which reverberated wonderfully over the hard surfaces of the corridor—slate floor, paneled walls, mosaic ceiling tiles, brass fixtures, tinkling glass.
Fortunately the Mister appeared.
“This doctor,” Ursula panted.
Doctor? Anna had not realized that the Mister was a doctor.
Ursula was not a small woman, and even with two strong sets of arms, it was an effort to help her to her room. The Mister—Doctor, Anna would now think of him—sent her for ice.
When she returned, Ursula was saying, “It’s the worst possible time for this.”
“It can’t be helped,” the Doctor said.
After applying a compress to Ursula’s swollen ankle, he brought Anna out into the corridor. “When you bring up the nightcap,” he said, “knock on the door and come on through.” He opened his mouth as if to say more but did not elaborate.
“Yes, sir,” she said, then turned to sit with Ursula.
“Also,” he said, “I found these in the corridor. Make sure there aren’t any more.” He reached out and dropped several cat’s-eye marbles into her hand.
• • •
It was an imposing room, ornately appointed. In the dim light, she could make out the broad outlines of furnishings she couldn’t yet name: armoire, divan, secretary desk, Persian rugs. And at the far end, behind a four-panel folding screen, a large canopied bed from which thrashing and stifled moans could be heard.
The Doctor sat glumly in a tall armchair. He gestured for Anna to set the tray on a side table, making no motion to bring the nightcap to his patient. He handed Anna a light blanket. It was the softest wool she had ever touched.
“Make yourself comfortable in a chair or on the floor,” he said. “Sleep if you can. Don’t come behind that screen unless I call for you.”
She sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. How could she fall asleep while the Mrs. writhed and whimpered on the other side of the screen and the Doctor sat in the armchair, so near, listening for a crisis? The sounds frightened and stirred Anna, suggesting alike the torments of illness as well as the pleasures of the body. Yet when the Doctor did call her, sharply—“Anna!”—she jolted awake. It was near dawn, gray light leaking through heavy curtains. Scrambling to her feet, she passed behind the screen and approached the bed.
The stench assailed her first, a cloying perfume of sweat, blood, and excreta mixed with decay. It reminded Anna of the refuse heap outside her village, a rank place where they discarded everything from broken chairs to spoiled food to dead cats. The Mrs.’s large canopied bed looked like a battlefield, covers thrown every which way. A woman—the Mrs., it must have been—naked, pale, and far too thin, crouched at one end, glistening with sweat and crying out as she flailed and struggled against something on her back. Anna thought at first the woman was tangled up in her own sheets, but no, something larger and more substantial clung to her, something alive and feral and malign, something that had attacked the Mrs. and would not let go. Anna remembered the one time she’d seen a rabid dog. But how could a dangerous animal have made its way into the house, much less the room or the bed, while the Doctor kept watch?
The Doctor was on the other side of the bed, facing the Mrs. and wrestling against sinewy gray limbs. Anna could not tell in the darkness whose limbs they were or whether they were arms or legs.
“Keep it from biting her!” he shouted.
Anna stepped toward the bed, the tallest bed she had ever seen outside of a storybook, and prepared to climb on to the feather mattress to take hold of the furious creature entwining itself around the Mrs. But at her approach the creature turned its head and she saw its face, shrunken and spongy with decomposition but unmistakably human and female, its leaking eye sockets fixed on Anna as its mouth opened in a silent scream, skinny teeth parting across fetid strings of slime. The room grew suddenly cold and even darker; only the maw of the thing remained in sight, widening and widening till she fell in and drowned.
• • •
When she came to, she was not in the Mrs.’s room. Or Ursula’s room. Or her own closet. She tried to sit up, then fell back against a wave of dizziness.
“I told you: nerves of steel,” the Doctor said. When she said nothing, he added, “Was it true, that story about trying to keep your father alive after he was shot?”
“What was that?” she said.
“The former Mrs.”
Missuses, she remembered. “And where am I now?”
A pause. “This is my room.” After a minute, he said, with some exasperation, “Ursula is right. You are strangely incurious.”
“You should have told me.”
He sighed. “We’ve found it makes little difference whether we warn people in advance or not.”
“What did you do after I fainted?”
“I injected her with a sedative,” he said heavily. “That settles them both. It’s a last resort. Her heart is not strong.”
Both. She found she could sit up a little. He brought her a glass of water. “So is that as bad as it gets?”
He barked a short, bitter laugh. “God, no. When her husband returns, it will be worse.”
She could not hide her astonishment. “Husband? So you are not—?”
“Me?” He laughed again, with more mirth. Her face warmed. “No, no, no. I am not a family member.” He snorted. “Thank God.”
• • •
Later that day, insisting she was fine, Anna helped bathe the Mrs. The Doctor supervised from the doorway. Anna smiled to see the way he stood, primly turned away from his patient, as if he had not wrestled with her naked body a few hours earlier.
In the harsh light of the Mrs.’s opulent bathroom, the true atrocity of her situation was clear. She was young, only a few years older than herself, Anna guessed. She remained groggy from the drugs; if she were aware that a new person was bathing her, she didn’t object. The desiccated body of her predecessor clung to her piggyback-style, its shriveled legs wrapped tightly around the Mrs.’s hips. More hideously, the flesh of the old wife’s left hand was sunk into and melded with the flesh of the Mrs.’s left breast. The old wife emerged like an appalling growth from the Mrs.’s own body—or perhaps it was the other way round, the new Mrs. springing from the old. Anna thought suddenly of the women of her village, how they carried water and firewood and children on their backs, toiling under burdens they could not relinquish.
Anna drew warm water from the gold-plated faucet and poured it over the Mrs.’s embattled body and tangled black tresses. There was a raw bald spot at the back of her head. The old wife must have pulled or bitten out her hair. Anna wondered if the woman had ever been beautiful, and she wasn’t sure if she meant the old wife or the new.
Delicate whirls of blood appeared in the bathwater.
“She’s menstruating,” Anna said.
“Yes,” the Doctor said from the doorway. “That’s when the worst attacks occur.”
Anna did not cry till afterward. After helping the Mrs. out of the tub, after gently drying her off, even passing a towel over the spongy mass on her back, after dressing her in her specially-made clothes, arranging her in the armchair, and hiding the awful protuberances under scarves and veils. After the Mrs. turned weary brown eyes to Anna and whispered, “Thank you,” a courtesy that broke her heart. Only then did Anna make her way through the double doors and sink to the hard floor of the corridor. Her hands began to shake and then her entire body.
“Drink this,” the Doctor said, squatting beside her. He held a small glass to her lips with one hand and steadied the back of her head with the other. The remedy tasted at once bitter and sweet, cool and warming.
She shook her head and he proffered another sip.
“Are they—what is that called? Siamese twins?”
“How did it happen?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I came afterward. I was brought—and bought—to stay here. Like you.”
“They can’t be separated?” she finally said.
“We’ve had specialists from around the world. Each attempt nearly killed her.”
He emptied the glass himself and winced against its bittersweetness, but she could sense how it eased some tension in his body. She felt herself surrendering to a delicious sense of all-rightness.
“I made up the story about my father,” she said, and nodded off to his laughter.
• • •
Ursula’s ankle was slow to heal. But she relinquished her role with surprising alacrity, as if the sudden, forced cessation of her labors had brought her a relief she had forgotten she needed. Every day she sat propped up in a cushioned rocking-chair in her room and seemed to relish instructing Anna in the care of the Mrs. She said more in the week after her injury than she had in the previous three months.
For her part, Anna took pleasure in ignoring or upending Ursula’s directions. The Mrs. hated the soft-boiled eggs that cook sent up every morning, so Anna changed the order to toast with jam. Then changed it to two slices of toast with jam, one of which she ate herself on her way upstairs each morning.
She also saw that Ursula’s admonition to “never aggravate the old Mrs.” was nonsense. The “old Mrs.” was hostility incarnate—if “incarnate” could include rotting flesh. The free right arm, withered and usually limp, often came to furious life during meals, jerking suddenly, spilling hot tea on the Mrs. or jabbing her with a fork.
Sometimes Anna found these antics comical and had to stifle her laughter. But she sincerely pitied her mistress and started binding the errant arm to the chair back with a leather strap. The malicious creature then began squeezing its prey’s left breast with its embedded hand until the Mrs. screamed in pain. At which Anna stabbed embroidery pins into the old arm until it stopped.
With food she preferred and fewer interruptions while she ate, the Mrs.’s appetite improved, and with it, her weight and color.
Anna also countermanded Ursula’s injunction against saying anything about the outside world. “She cannot bear to hear it, poor thing,” Ursula had said. But it wasn’t true. When Anna brought in a newspaper she found in the library, the Mrs. asked her to please read it aloud to her, and sat rapt through every word, not just about the latest elections and wars, but notices of next week’s flower show or the reunion of the class of whenever, as well as lurid reports of serial killers, freakish incidents, and faraway plagues.
“It’s a dreadful story, Ma’am,” Anna said, folding back a page of newsprint. She’d just read about a film shoot where a ghastly accident had decapitated the famous lead actor.
The Mrs. poured herself a second cup of tea. “I like to know I’m not the only strange thing in the world,” she whispered. The Mrs. always whispered.
“Excuse my impertinence,” Anna said after a moment, “but Ursula—was she lady’s maid to the—the first Mrs.?”
The Mrs. looked up, and Anna could have sworn the shrouded head of the old Mrs. moved too. When the Mrs. nodded, so did the other head.
• • •
The man of the house returned. No one said where he had been or why. For all Anna knew, he might have been overseas—or simply in a different wing of the house. One day she opened the double door with the tea tray, and there he was, an old man, gray-headed but still vigorous, seated opposite his wife and talking far louder than necessary.
He was describing a fox hunt, of all things. Anna couldn’t tell if it was a hunt he had participated in himself or had heard about. Some details about the horses and the drunken son of Lord Someone struck her as familiar. Perhaps he’d read about it in his own library. The Mrs. watched him politely but with nothing like the interest she’d shown in the newspaper. She fidgeted more than usual against her burden. The head of the old Mrs. held itself upright, at monstrous attention.
The man talked on and on, repeating himself—the dissolute son of the lord came up again, so drunk at ten in the morning he’d fallen off his horse, et cetera. The man was not really addressing the Mrs., Anna realized. Maybe he was talking to what was left of his first wife, who might remember some of the friends he mentioned. Maybe he was talking to himself, passing the time during an obligatory visit with his lawfully, awfully wedded wife. Wives.
“What have you done with old Ursula?” he suddenly asked.
“This is Anna, my dear,” the Mrs. said. “She’s been a great help.”
“She’s certainly better looking than Ursula,” the man said with an unpleasant laugh. “That should help.”
The Mrs. looked down, her face crimson.
“Are you all right, Ma’am?” Anna asked.
“Ursula needs to have a word with you,” the Mrs. whispered without looking up.
• • •
“Is it true?” Anna demanded of the Doctor.
He blinked sleepily; she’d roused him from a nap, he claimed. “I’m sorry, Anna,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask—”
“No one’s asking,” Anna said. “I have no choice, do I?”
“I don’t either,” he said, closing his eyes. “We none of us do.”
She wanted to cry, scream, stamp her feet. Instead, she drew in an unsteady breath and said, “I want more money for my family.”
“We can do that.”
“And a dose of that remedy of yours,” she said. “I know you’ve been at it already.”
• • •
The worst part was not leaning against the headboard with the spongy, rank creature pressed between her and the Mrs. and feeling it reanimate when the husband approached the bed.
It was not the ordeal of keeping the old wife from hurting the Mrs. during the encounter, an ordeal that showed up the next day in sore muscles and scratches and a bite that became infected.
It was not hearing the Mrs.’s shrieks as the old wife managed to claw or bite or pinch her anyway.
It was not the wretchedness of watching the old man working to contain his revulsion and outwit the languor of his own aged body.
It was not the effort required to keep from laughing, a laughter that threatened to turn into screaming if suppressed.
It was not seeing that, for all her torment, the Mrs. was roused by her husband’s attentions yet found no release and was left panting and injured and bereft at the end.
It was not even the disgusting realization that the old man fixed his gaze on her, that it was Anna’s face and body he was watching when he finally climaxed.
And it was not catching, over and over, the eyes of the Doctor as he struggled to keep the old wife’s legs apart, to keep the creature from preventing the union of man and second wife, and exchanging in their glances a knowledge of their mutual degradation, a knowledge she found both mortifying and strangely provocative.
The worst part was Ursula, sitting in the armchair so she could ostensibly “coach” Anna, and the fevered avidity with which she consumed the tortured scene before her.
• • •
“I shouldn’t give you any more,” the Doctor said when she knocked on his door.
She knew then that he had just applied himself to the remedy, which she now knew came in brown glass bottles that he kept in a cabinet above his desk.
“That’s not what I want.”
“What do you want, Anna?” he said, his voice softer. A tiny ripple of hope surfaced over the exhaustion in his face.
“I want Ursula’s room,” she said. The ripple vanished.
Next day, Ursula was moved into the woodland cottage that had been readied for her retirement. Anna listened with satisfaction as the older woman’s shouts of indignation and protest resounded in the corridor then down the back stairs then outside. She imagined the old woman being dragged away by her iron-gray braid. She could not stop smiling as she moved herself and her few belongings into the larger, east-facing room.
• • •
They started sharing breakfast, Anna and the Mrs., sitting as companionably at the table as a rich lady, her caretaker, and a malevolent appendage could manage. Anna had the newspaper delivered daily and read it aloud over their tea and toast. One morning she read that the local bishop had had to resign after allegations of molesting children in his diocese.
The Mrs. started to laugh.
Anna, for all her faithlessness, was shocked. “Ma’am?”
“That man came here to be feted in style, only to tell my husband he was a bigamist and I an adulteress unless we annulled our marriage,” she hissed. “Now he is the outcast.”
Anna had not considered the theological or legal ramifications of the Mrs.’s dilemma before.
“So you—are not legally married?”
“Oh, we are,” the Mrs. said. “We eventually found a willing clergyman.”
“I see,” Anna said. What she saw most clearly was the way wealth allowed for contingencies of all kinds. “But how horrible for all those children.”
“The ones attacked by the bishop.”
“Oh yes, of course. Dreadful.”
Anna wondered whether any of her siblings had wandered into this abhorrent man’s orbit. She herself had rarely attended church, but her younger siblings sometimes went, as it pleased their mother.
That night, called upon to assist at the marital bed, Anna screwed up her face into such grotesque, unappealing expressions that the husband could not perform and eventually stormed off in naked rage, bellowing about how he was the most unfortunate man in the world.
The Doctor came to Anna’s room after sedating the Mrs. and tending to her wounds. A visible pulse throbbed at his temple. Anna wished she could reach out and touch it.
“What were you playing at?” he demanded.
“Nothing.” She looked away, fingertips tingling.
“I saw you, Anna. I had to stitch a laceration over her right eye. There are bites on her neck.”
“You tried. What were those faces you were making?”
Her cheeks burned. “I hate the way he watches me.”
He sighed. “I know, Anna.”
“You do not know.”
He brought a shaking hand to his brow, pressing at the angry temple. “You’re right,” he said. “But I do see how he looks at you, and I—”
“I hate it too.” He stretched an arm toward her as if to offer comfort.
She moved away. She still wanted to touch him; she wanted him to touch her. But not like this.
• • •
Inauspicious and terrible couplings notwithstanding, the Mrs. became pregnant. Anna was the first to know. The Mrs.’s sudden aversion to her nightcaps and chocolate was Anna’s first clue. The second was breast tenderness so exquisite the Mrs. flinched from the pressure of her own clothes. When the month passed with no bleeding and no attack from the old wife, Anna told the Doctor. He blanched.
“Shouldn’t we be happy?” she said. “Isn’t this what it’s all for, to produce an heir?”
“I didn’t think it would ever happen,” he said. “I don’t want to imagine what comes next.”
Her condition seemed somehow to have rendered the old Mrs. quiescent, but they did not speak aloud of the pregnancy in front of the mother-to-be, who came to her own understanding soon enough. They kept the husband away, anxious that his presence would rouse the old Mrs. to resentful comprehension. Instead the master and mistress of the house began writing notes to each other, which Anna, their courier, found charming in spite of herself: “My dear, I hope you are eating well, remember you now eat for two,” “Dear love, Anna is having to let out my dresses again, I am growing quite round, you would not know me,” and so on. Meanwhile the gray form of the old Mrs. hung limp behind her like a gruesome costume the new Mrs. had forgotten to take off.
“How is she?” Anna asked the Doctor one afternoon, after a somber-faced check on his patient.
He shrugged. He alone seemed unable to enjoy the lighter, more hopeful atmosphere in the house. If anything, he was more on edge than ever. He’d lost weight. It concerned Anna, although it also gave him a kind of consumptive beauty she rather liked.
“Maybe this will cure her,” Anna said.
“Maybe,” she said, imitating his dour tone.
His face flashed with ire, but he couldn’t sustain his pique when he saw her smile. “Hope is very seductive,” he said. “Have a care.”
She could smell the sour aftertaste of the remedy on his breath. “It’s a healthier seduction than others I could name,” she said, then walked away before he could protest or misunderstand.
• • •
The Doctor was right to be wary, of course, although his anxiety, like most anxiety, proved worthless in the end.
Anna sensed the change one morning when she found the Mrs. restless and without appetite at breakfast. That would not be unusual late in pregnancy, but a faint corrosive smell hung about the room, a smell Anna recognized too late. When the Mrs. cried out and doubled over, Anna mistook it for a precipitous onset of labor, like in films, where the actress who never looks pregnant enough suddenly clutches at her stomach. Back in her village, Anna had never seen labor come on like this, and this is what she was thinking when she went to the Mrs.’s side and found that the long-dormant right arm of the old wife had awakened, crept up the side of the pregnant woman, discovered the swollen belly, and begun savagely clawing at it.
All of Anna’s strength could not pry the arm away and she finally leaned over and bit it. The Mrs. screamed in pain, but the odious hand let go. Anna’s mouth filled with a putrescence that made her gag. By the time she made her way down the corridor to waken the Doctor, the hideous arm had recovered and was attacking the Mrs. once more.
The Doctor staggered in, face gaunt, eyes unfocused, speech garbled. Anna wanted to slap him into wakefulness but instead ordered strong coffee brought up from the kitchen, an urn of it, please, and two cups, quick as can be. By then it was impossible to distinguish labor pangs from the old wife’s abuses. Anna sent a note to the Mister. It told him what was happening and exhorted him to stay away, for the love of God.
He did not stay away. They never do, the men who need to stay away. He arrived in all his caviling mastery and stood, first, in the open doorway, then at the foot of the bed, refusing to leave, refusing to help, wildly bemoaning his fate. The Mrs. was bleeding—from the birth canal, from her nipples, from wounds inflicted by her tormentor. The husband would not hear of taking her to the hospital.
“She will die,” the Doctor said.
“Just save the child,” the Mister said. Then he resumed his lamentations: “Why, God? Oh, it is insupportable!” and all the rest.
Someone had informed Ursula as well, for here she was, supporting the Mister in her beefy arms as they stood weeping before the awful spectacle. Anna saw that, for all her cries of “My poor darling!,” Ursula looked—not happy, no, that was impossible, but—fulfilled? Yes, perhaps that was the word. Anna didn’t have the time or composure to consider what this meant, but later, when it was all over and she was far away, she would remember Ursula’s expression that day and imagine, just for a moment, that she saw the truth of that terrible house.
Mercifully, it was over by sunset. The Doctor administered many times the normal dose of sedative and cut the baby out of the Mrs.’s body. Ursula wrapped the infant, a boy, in linens and left with the Mister. When the Doctor arranged the Mrs.’s body on the bed, the old wife slipped off of her like a shed snakeskin. Then two dead women lay in the bed. The Doctor, bloodied from head to foot, sank to the floor.
Anna took the key from the prostrate doctor’s pocket and went to his room. She set aside one clean change of clothes, took a box heavy with cash, and stuffed as many of his belongings and medical instruments as she could fit into an old suitcase, emptying every brown bottle she discovered as she worked. She found seven. In her room, she set aside a change of clothes for herself, then stuffed into a satchel her own stash of money as well as a few books she had “borrowed.” She carried the suitcase and satchel and box of money to the darkened library downstairs, which was near the back entrance. Then she tiptoed to the garage and, as quietly as she could, running lights off, drove the plainest, oldest automobile and parked it by the rear door.
Upstairs, she took the clean clothes back to the Mrs.’s bedroom. The Doctor remained on the floor below the bed. He looked at her glassy-eyed, and she searched him until she found another small vial of the remedy.
“One last time,” she said, helping him drink the remaining drops.
He did not object when she stripped him of his bloody clothes and directed him into the Mrs.’s marble bathtub. He did not object when she stripped herself and joined him. He did not object when she rinsed the gore from their bodies or helped him out of the tub and into his clean clothes. He said nothing while she poured lamp oil over the bed and its occupants, finally at rest. He watched in silence as she lit the candles in the Mrs.’s silver candelabra. His eyes widened briefly when she threw it on the bed and the flames shot up. He did not look back as she led him from the infernal room, down the back stairs, out of the house, and into the car. He evinced no surprise when she started the engine and drove toward the gates of the estate. He groaned when she braked suddenly before the stone lions. She climbed out of the car to have a look.
She laughed as she resumed her seat. “I ran over a peacock.”
He smiled languorously. He did not notice the red glow in the night sky behind them. He did not wake up when she stopped just before her old village to kiss her hand and lay it on the spot where her father had been shot. He slept beside her for hours as she drove, away from the glow in the sky, away from her village, away from the town where she had never gone to church, beyond anyplace she could have mapped. When they ran low on fuel, she stopped the car in an unfamiliar town, found lodgings that were cheap and asked no questions, managed to wrestle his drugged body out of the car and into bed, then crawled in next to him and fell asleep.
A few hours later she woke to find him looking at her with frank amazement. “Anna, where are we?”
“I’m not sure, but far.”
She pointed to his suitcase on the floor. The sun was high in the sky, light leaking through rickety shutters, revealing the squalor of the room.
“My medical supplies?”
“As much as I could fit.”
“Bless you,” he said, climbing out of bed.
She listened as his rummaging grew more and more panicked. “I dumped them all out,” she said.
“What?” He rose unsteadily to his feet.
“It’s killing you.”
She thought he was going to strike her, but when he saw her flinch, he uttered an anguished cry and sank to his knees beside the bed.
He was pale, sweating. “We have to go back.”
“I set the place on fire.”
“My God, I thought that was a dream.”
She shook her head.
“Please, Anna, I need it.”
“I know,” she said. “But you need to not need it.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said, his voice breaking. “The only thing worse than taking it is not taking it. I can’t. I can’t let you see me like that.”
Her laugh was not kind. “You let me see a great many things, Doctor. Whatever happens next, it cannot possibly be worse.”
He tried to smile. “Nerves of steel,” he muttered between shallow breaths.
“No, you idiot,” she said. “I told you before that that’s not it at all.”
She did not know whether he could recover, or, once better, stay recovered. She did not know whether they were being hunted, and if so, where they could be safe. She did not know what they would do when they ran out of money, although that would not be soon. She did not know whether they could love each other away from the estate, away from the Mrs., away from the horrors they’d endured together. But seeing the pain gather in his face, knowing that soon he would be terribly sick, she clambered out of bed and drew the ragged curtains across the windows to keep out the light for a little longer.
Copyright © 2023 by Naomi J. Williams