Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Death Takes a Bride

Today tastes like stale wedding cake, flat champagne, and dust.

The project currently on the needles has begun to whisper to me as I knit in the long hot dusk of summer, and so I've dropped all my stitches to run over here and write it all down.

Death Takes a Bride

It had been a long time since that night, that night he had used his hands on her mother and pushed her to the floor, had blackened both her eyes and the blood had come from her mouth. How long? She didn’t know, days at least, months at most. He was gone. That’s what mattered. He was gone but her mother was going.

Mother took to her bed right after the door slammed shut, took to her bed with her face to the wall, breathing. Just breathing. She wiped the blood off her mother’s face, kept the stained handkerchief in her dresser drawer, as her mother breathed softly. In, hesitate, out. She checked sometimes in the night or the afternoon, afraid her mother had stopped. Breathing slowly.

The girl would make soup–soup was easy, water and whatever was in the refrigerator, then the cupboard, then what she could “borrow” from a neighbor. Or a store. Good thing it was winter and she could wear her mother’s long coat, the one three sizes too large on her slender frame. She could fit more under it that way.

Potatoes were cheap. She could buy two bags and some bizarre vegetable–kohlrabi, rapini, mustard greens and still get change from a ten dollar bill. She would stand right there in line with the other customers, waiting impatiently while the clerk pulled up the code (tapping her feet, rolling her eyes) and rung up her purchase. She’d figured out the rules. If you were careful and didn’t go to the same store all the time and didn’t get greedy (put back the bacon and steak, get chicken legs and pork chops) you didn’t get caught.

Still, she knew this couldn’t go on forever. So it was no surprise when the knock came at her door one night.

He was tall and thin under his top hat and long black overcoat. His eyes glittered in deep-set sockets. He grinned. He always grinned. Big white teeth, straight and perfect–and somehow, too many for his mouth.

She’d never seen him, but she knew him. “Mr. Death,” she said, from behind the door chain. “Go ‘way now, please. You have no business here.”

Still grinning, he took off his hat. “I’m afraid I do,” and he flicked his chin in a gesture that sped through the shotgun apartment to the one back bedroom where her mother lay, breathing slowly in and out. His voice was whisper-soft and iron hard, the edge of a knife in the night.

She went to slam the door in his grinning face, but he laid one finger softly just under the peephole. The hinges squealed and froze. She threw herself against the door, but it would not budge.

Then he pushed, hardly more than a breath of air, and the door swung wide, taking her with it.

He drifted in, a chilling breeze, and was halfway down the hall before she could speak. "Wait!" He turned, his eyes the thinnest slice of the moon in the night sky, and regarded her as she opened her mouth, not knowing what she would say until she heard it.

"Mother . . . she always said she wanted to see me married before she died. It was her dream to see me settled with a good husband."

Death shrugged, as if to say her mother's taste in men was . . . suspect at best. And what were dreams and desires to him, anyway?

"It would make her so happy," she continued. "To know that I was okay. And . . . it must be pretty lonely. Doing what you do." Death cocked his head, frowning. "You meet people for only a brief time, and then . . . " she opened her hand, a flower's petals drifting away on the wind. "No old friends, just vague acquaintances. No one really knows you. No one's there to hold the thread of your story together." He was nodding, slowly. "I could--that is, we could . . ."

"Marry." His voice was the sirocco through dried weeds in August.

"Yes. And if you could wait just a little while, say, until after the wedding day? Then she'd have what she always wanted, and you'd have what you want, and I'd get a few more days to make preparations and well . . . to be with her. Just a little longer."

He thought this over, forefinger and thumb wrapping his jaw. Finally he nodded. "Until then," he said, and took his leave. She locked the door behind him, heart pounding wildly. She had bought a few more days, at least. She would think about the price later.

She had a dress from long ago, a black lace dress that had pooled around her feet as a little girl, and would come to her knees now. That would do. But a wedding veil--she needed a wedding veil.

She opened her dresser drawer, thinking she might have a sweater laid by to rip and re-knit, and she saw the handkerchief stained with her mother's blood. She knew then what she needed to do.

Out of the blood she spun a thread, fine as the hair on her head, long enough to reach the moon. Red as cherries at midnight, red as the dreams of the unborn, red as the secret heart of the rose. And as she spun, the drops hummed and sang about loss, about betrayal, about release, but she paid them no heed. She had a plan.

She cast on with needles fashioned from broom straws, and began to knit. And that night, Death returned to the apartment.

He did not knock this time, nor open the door, but simply stepped through the barrier. She stood up and curtsied, careful not to drop a stitch in the complex lace she was working, fine and airy as foam on the sea.

"Are you ready?"

"Gracious, no! I have a dress, but, well, this is my wedding day. I want it to be perfect. So I'm knitting my veil." She held it up on spread fingers. "Once it's done, as soon as it's done, I'll be ready." Death frowned at this, but nodded. And again, he left.

As soon as he was gone, she sat down and ripped out half the knitting she had accomplished that day. She went and lay next to her mother, listening to the woman breathe in and out. In, hold, and out. Slow and steady.

And so it went for weeks. She would meet Death every night, sitting on her narrow daybed, knitting away. She would offer excuses for her slow progress each evening: "It's such complex work. There's so much here that's new to me." "I've never tried anything like this before, and I want it to be perfect." "It's such fine thread. It's hard to see, so I can't go very fast." Each morning, she would rip back half of what she had knitted the night before, and hold her mother, listening to her breathe, listening to her heart beat. Feeding her the thin broth which was all she could swallow.

Knitting a web of love from her mother's blood, and their days together.

It took months, of course, of knitting and ripping and knitting again, but the night came when she was down to the last row, and the last stitch, and the final binding off, which she saved for her bridegroom's visit. "Tomorrow night," she said, smiling. "Tomorrow night, I will meet you at the foot of Mother's bed and we will marry."

"Until tomorrow," he said, and touched her cheek with ivory fingers.

The next night, she waited for him at the foot of her mother’s bed, carrying a bouquet of lilies she had picked in the public gardens and orange blossoms plucked from the trees that dotted the city. Sweet and pale and free. She wore the black lace dress, much tighter in the shoulders and hips than it had been on the stick-straight child playing dress-up in a grown woman's cast-offs. And over it all, the sheer red lace veil.

Death smiled to see her so, in clothes that were between present and absent, in the same way he himself was between here and gone. To see his bride one step out of the world, and one step into his. It would be a good match. They clasped hands and swore their vows, and Death went to lift the veil from his wife's face, for their first kiss.

And he found himself ensnared for the first time in all eternity.

Death knows nothing of love, knows nothing of the bonds between beloveds, knows nothing of joining, but only sundering. The web of blood and love tangled in his hands, wrapped around his feet, muffled his jaws, tripped and trapped him. He snarled and writhed and thrashed, and only became deeper and deeper ensnared.

"Let me go!" His voice was the silence after the earthquake, the bubbles in the undertow, the embers of the forest fire.

"Promise me," his false bride demanded, "Promise me that you'll leave and never come back. You have no business here, Mr. Death."

He stopped, and looked up at her from where he lay on the floor. "Is that all you want?" he asked, hollow as a tornado, eerily quiet where there is no wind or air to carry sound. "For me to go, and never return?"

She felt the hook in his question, but ignored it. She had bested Death himself! What had she to fear from her conquered foe? "Yes. Leave me, and my mother, and never come back."

"Done." And with that, the fragile web tore, falling from tangled strands into three drops of blood on the floor, which turned into dust and blew away as Death turned on his heel and fled.

Death kept his word just as he keeps all things. She never saw him again. And to this day, the mother lies in the back room of the shotgun apartment, long and narrow like a tomb, breathing in and out, slowly, deeply, with the girl there as her eternal handmaiden. Perhaps they are happy. Perhaps.

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