murder and domestic violence.
We learned as each of us came into being that all castles have hearts. This castle has three. We still have our hearts, but our bodies were taken. Our hearts are the flames alight in the candles. They are the curtains and stained glass windows. They are the stains beneath our breasts, cold and withering, where he left us in that chamber.
Our hearts led us there, from the first who found the chamber to the third who saw the others displayed as angels. When the third joined us, we realized our anger was enough, and the flames burn hotter now. The castle is warm. We make it so for the new bride. She will not shiver as we did.
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
He chose me for my voice. My performance. The way I used words and hurled them at the crowd. The way I held the spotlight. The way I spun and fell and rose and died and cried. He saw me play Lady Macbeth in a little theatre with a small stage and few props. I never forgot such a face in the crowd. His night eyes, his sharp mouth. The way he grinned when I shrieked, words careening into the crowd.
Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…
He said I was the dagger in his heart. He asked me to perform for him. I hissed soliloquies into his ears until he swallowed my words. He didn’t mind that my hands were ruined from work or that I had no standing in my little town. They all thought I was a witch, anyway, for playing such characters. Perhaps he imagined I was Lady Macbeth, or another woman in Shakespeare who might throw herself into the sea, or on a dagger, or drink poison for love. He took my whispers and gave me his own. Promises. More spotlight. Bigger cities. He led me to his castle, and I followed with a burlap sack of all my belongings. He promised me a stage.
But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail….
It was because of his promises that I used the key. I was eager; I wanted everything from him. More words. More light. After I found the chamber, though…what would Lady Macbeth have done? I’d like to think she would’ve done what I did, only with more cruelty and vigor.
He grabbed me. He wanted to take me in the chamber, among the tools. And when I used a pewter candlestick to break his nose, it seemed to confirm whatever inner dilemma he may have had. Whatever spark lingered withered into dust.
It was the iron maiden for me. He closed the doors with blood still dripping from his nose to his lips.
It is my right, he said.
Then he latched the door.
I felt my blood falling away. It did not hurt as much as I feared. I did not scream. I prayed, although to whom, I forget. To the ladies of the light. To Lady Macbeth. To Cordelia. To Miranda. To Juliet. I wish I had more time for words. Their words. Loud words. Words I knew would cut through him. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.
He liked me for my mouth and my hunger, and because I learned the word “fuck” from my parents. They used to say it all the time. My life was a poem of fucks. He liked when I said the word because my mouth looked like a viper’s. I fell for him because I was hungry. Hunger was my name in my country. I ate voraciously, whole carcasses from the spit. I inhaled the vegetables and fruit grown in the fields of my mother’s family. He said he would pay for the irrigation to keep the fields alive. How could one with such a hunger resist? He promised he’d fend off the drought.
I followed him willingly. I fucked him hungrily. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for such a hunger.
When I searched for the chamber, it was while he was away, claiming he was off to save the fields of my family. I knew he lied. I knew the moment the words left his lips. When he lies, his mouth looks like a camel ready to spit. He thought he was so cunning. So I used the key. An eye for an eye. A hunger for a hunger.
I found the iron maiden in a sea of crusted red. The eyes behind the door were closed. The skin the color of parchment. He stole her. Another woman who had such hunger. I cried for her, and I so rarely cried for anyone. I tried to release her, but even the latch was pasted over with blood. Cemented shut.
I waited in the chamber until he returned. He wasted no time.
He starved me. Chained me next to the iron maiden until I wasted away. I did not beg for mercy. I yelled profanities at the fucker until he had to board up the chamber to drown out the sound.
The servants began to suspect.
Still I shouted. Until my voice became hoarse, my throat shriveled. Until I died.
He chose me because he said I was the most beautiful human he ever saw. I was without family. I owned my path with no strings. He saw the fire in me before I cast it to the candles. He loved it when I challenged him, debated him. I told him when he was wrong. I said no when he asked me to perform. I said no when he asked me to say dirty words. Not that I didn’t like performing or saying dirty words, but I would not be bidden. I would not oblige.
He gave me a brooch that was his mother’s. A giant ruby tear. He took me to his mother’s grave. He told me secrets the others have never known. You could say I still love him, in my own way.
He told me he feared he was evolving. He could not place the word. I understood this misplacement; I, too had been in such a place where there was no way forward. I thought I was redeeming him – I thought I was redeemed.
The moment he put the key in my hand, I went to the chamber without delay. There was no question. I held it up and announced there would be no secrets between us. I said if we were the personification of love, then we cannot personify secrets. He seemed amused. We walked to the chamber hand in hand.
Dried blood pooled under the iron maiden. It had seeped into the stone, staining it permanently.
The hungry warrior was all bones. Her jaw hung open in a perpetual shout.
I knew them. I loved them. I realized instantly that I would be a part of them.
My love? I asked. Who are these sisters of mine?
They wronged me, he said.
How have they wronged you?
He did not answer, but tried to take me from behind. I would not oblige. I clawed at his face. He roared. I fought. I ended. He ripped me from the inside out. Indeed, he had evolved in his passion. He was born anew. When I watched him sob over my body, it was a confirmation. He had not cried over the others.
To atone for such betrayal, he said.
As if my body was the betrayal.
Let me say this: Do not dare mistake my passion, my love, for forgiveness; it is I who burns the flames the hottest.
We watch the new wife and see she is a curious one. She brought trunks upon trunks with her to the castle. We were taken from faraway places so our families could not come for us or our bodies. Where our deaths could be written away as accidental at best. He is clever in this way, even we must admit that. But the new wife seems different. What is it about her? She does not smile. She leans away from him. Her eyes are large and moon-like. It’s as if she is constantly beholding the world afresh.
While he shows her the castle, she knocks on the walls with her knuckles. 1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3. She carries a trinket in her pocket, which she holds with one hand while the other knocks.
Must you always knock, he asks her.
I must, she says.
Perhaps she carries a rosary in her pocket. Or a good luck charm or piece of jewelry from her mother or grandmother.
But she takes it out and we see it is not a rosary at all but a flat piece of wood, smooth and triangular around the edges.
A guitar pick.
She’s a musician.
If music be the food of love, play on!
The trunks are full of instruments. We recognize some, but most we’ve never seen before. She takes them out in her bedroom (formerly and so briefly our bedroom) and arranges them in order of size and class. Woodwinds in one corner. Strings in another. Brass in another.
She takes a ukulele from a small suitcase near the bed and places it on the pillow. She practices with the ukulele last. She kisses the strings and then strums them. 1-2-3. 1-2-3. She flows into a song. The song is sweet and sad at first. She opens her mouth and begins to sing.
Now we know why he chose her.
If we could cry in our state of being, we would. We would wail along with her, listening to such a song. It seems written for us, for souls like us. No more of that wretched gothic music he stomps on the organ in the chapel. This woman plays the song for us all. We let loose our power for a moment and the castle warms. The room heats up. She wipes a bead of sweat from her temple, ends the song.
He watches her from the doorway. He thinks the song is for him, but it is not. We will show him it is not his song.
When she sees him in the doorway, she puts the ukulele away and pockets the pick. He tells her to prepare for dinner, and she nods. We know the path from here.
She knocks on her thighs with both hands. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.
The best meal she’ll eat in her fucking life.
Then the key. Then the bed.
If she consents.
He presents the key after a sumptuous dessert. Candied figs, whipped cream, and fruit so ripe, the juices bled in deep color onto the plate. He ate with gusto, holding each bite up to the light before putting it in his mouth.
We remember such decadence. The taste hangs beyond the tip of our tongues.
He pushes his plate aside and holds up the key as he had the food, letting the key glint in the light, dangling it in front of her like a child.
Promise me you will not go in this room, he says. Promise me.
It’s a performance. He grandstands. We make it less comfortable for him, warming the air until he dabs his mustache with a napkin and yells to the servants.
Open a goddamn window, he says.
We chuckle, but he cannot hear us–no one can–but we think we see the musician smirk, her lips curled up just so.
He leaves the dinner table to wash up. He says he will call on the musician later.
Prepare yourself, he says.
The musician goes back to her chambers, the key nestled in her pocket next to her pick. Who knows how long it will take for her to grow curious. Or maybe, just maybe, she will keep her word. Maybe it’ll be years before we have to protect her.
Although none of us thought to bring a companion, the musician brought a music professor, an elderly gentleman. He wears small half-moon glasses and a brown sweater. He wears fingerless gloves that we guess are due to arthritis. He sits in her bedroom to clean and tune the instruments. We were hesitant about him at first, but the way he polishes her instruments brings on a pleasant sense of admiration. We ease up on the candles. We blow a soft breeze so he does not overheat. He sighs, grateful perhaps.
I don’t like him, the professor whispers.
Don’t whisper, the musician says. Whispering means fear. He cannot hear us.
Well, something can hear us, the professor says, looking at the walls. They are angry.
Not at you, I think, she says.
The musician undresses. The professor does not seem to mind; he continues to organize, stacking the trunks and organizing her sheet music on the enormous desk.
She has curves as smooth and round as her instruments. We all sigh, missing our own skin. Different shades and textures of perfection.
The musician walks to the full-length mirror and beholds herself. She touches her belly and her nipples. She plucks at the skin on her hips.
Does it hurt? she asks.
The professor sits at her desk and takes out a book. He opens it in his lap and chuckles.
You know the answer to that, he says. We’ve discussed this.
I like to hear your voice, she says. I admit I am afraid.
Then why did you marry him?
You know why, she says. I’m not above marrying for convenience. He promised me a symphony. He’s going publish my music. The only question is how to deal with him.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Take heart, sister. She is cleverer than you think.
Let us hope. The bastard comes for her now.
The musician puts on a silk robe and places the guitar pick and the key together in one of the pockets. He arrives at her door dressed in his own deep red robe and fox slippers. His hair is combed back in a grey slick. He has changed his mind.
I want you to use the key, he says.
But you said never to use it, she says. I keep my promises.
I believe you, he says, so I want you to use it now.
Perhaps another day, she says.
Her eyes seem wild and her nostrils flare, but she stands still. She senses the sway of the room. He has never done this before. The pattern is broken.
The musician’s fingers tap her pocket. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.
The professor looks up from his book and glances back and forth, from the musician to the doorway.
I wish you had not brought your professor, he says. I have plenty of servants to attend to you.
He is not a servant, she snaps.
The professor seems unperturbed by this exchange, but he regards the musician with concern. The musician must’ve fought hard for the professor to join her.
You are my wife, he says. You will do as you are bidden.
We hiss. The candles flicker.
I bid myself, husband, she says.
He straightens his shoulders.
You will come with me and use the key, he says. You will bring the ukulele. You will do this. Or I will kill him.
From his jacket pocket, he takes out a small pistol. He aims it at the professor. The professor puts the book down and stands.
I find this abhorrent, the professor says. Sickly. Preposterous. Inconceivable.
The musician steps forward.
I will come with you, she says.
She walks across the bedroom to stand in front of the professor, the pistol now aimed at her breasts.
I could never play music again without my professor, she says. If you love me as you love my music, you will not harm him.
He’s going to shoot.
No, my dear. He needs her to complete his steps.
O, woe is me to have seen what I have seen, to see what I see!
We warm the room till they all sweat, standing there in a straight line. The professor, the musician, and our murderer. We hope his hand becomes so slick with sweat that he drops the weapon. Yet he holds it steady. Our musician taps her pocket.
He lowers the pistol.
Come with me, he says. Bring the instrument.
She knows what instrument he’s referring to. She goes to the bed and takes the ukulele from the pillow. She cradles it like an infant.
The professor touches her shoulder softly. His lips tremble.
We should never have come, the professor whispers.
It was my choice, she says.
Our murderer laughs.
Two little chipmunks, chattering away, he says. Enough. Come, wife. But you stay, professor. Stay with your books and music. I will return for you.
The musician takes her husband’s hand, and he leads her on, away.
The professor shivers in her chamber despite our heat. His half-moon glasses cloud with sweat and hot breath. He looks at all the instruments. Music sheets strewn about. We see despair leaking out of him.
He takes up a flute and begins to polish it again. It gleams already; there is no need to repeat, but he does. He stares at the mouthpiece where her mouth has been. He begins to weep. It is agony to leave him, but we must. The musician needs us.
He leads the musician to the chamber in silence.
She is bewildered, surely, but not panicked. Her cheeks are flushed from our warmth.
I am thirsty, she says.
Later, he says.
I am hungry, she says.
Later, he says.
Her arm cradles the ukulele, and she taps the side of it with her fingernails.
The chamber sits in a dank part of the castle. It had been such an adventure for each of us to find at first. So many twists and staircases. We all thought we might discover a treasure of some sort. How naïve we were. How filled with hope.
There are fewer candles in this part of the castle, so it is harder to keep the musician warm. We push harder, but the flush in her cheeks fades. Her skin becomes pale.
When they reach the chamber, he gestures to the door.
The key, he bids her. I want you to be the one to open it.
She takes the key from her pocket and turns it in the lock. The door groans open.
It is dark; she cannot see us at first. He takes out a long match and begins to light the candles on the walls. All of them. One by one, each flame flickering to life. We come into view. The Iron Maiden, the Hungry Warrior, and the Lover.
The musician falls to her knees.
My God, she cries.
You will join them, he says.
Sisters, she says. What form shall it take?
Immolation, he says. First, you will play the song you played earlier.
He sets a chair in the middle of the chamber. Next to the chair sits a bucket of oil. He will throw it on her as soon as she finishes. Our musician sits and takes out the pick from her pocket. He aims the pistol at her.
No sudden movements, he says. Play on, sweet wife.
The feeling of opportunity hits us all at once: He does not realize the gift he has given. All the candles are alight.
Sister, we push ourselves into the musician’s ear, as soft as a whisper. A lover’s caress.
Her lips open, and she sighs. Her fingers pluck at the strings of the ukulele, and we feel a spark. A quiver of ecstasy.
I am here, she whispers.
In the distance, we hear the professor run through the castle, up the stairs and down the twisting hallways. He wields the flute like an ax, like a mallet, like a club. Oh, how the mouthpiece shines.
The musician plays. Her eyes close. She starts to sing, and we feel our bodies sigh. We pour heat into the chamber, thawing our flesh, feeding our bones. He starts to change the pistol from one hand to the other to wipe his palms. There’s an expression on his face we’ve never seen before, thick with sweat. It’s a beautiful expression. It matched our own at one point before the end, before we came into being.
The professor’s footsteps are near the chamber now. At the sound, the musician ups the tempo, and her voice lilts off-key.
What is this, her husband says. What are you doing.
The musician doesn’t answer but continues on, the song becoming haunting, low and keening. Her fingers fly along the strings.
Stop this now, he says. Play what I bid you.
We pour heat into the room. The musician sweats but her fingers are deft and accurate, the calluses on her hands thick and stable. We pour so much that a hot breeze billows up. The Iron Maiden trembles, the bones of the Warrior creak together, and the Lover’s body shifts.
It’s just enough to jar him.
He holds up the pistol, but his finger slips along the trigger. The pistol clatters to the floor. Then the professor steps forth into the chamber, holding the flute like a club. The professor swings, but the husband dodges, and grabs the professor by the throat. He backs the elderly man to the wall, squeezes his throat.
Husband, the musician says.
The music has stopped, and he turns toward his wife. She holds the bucket of oil in her hands. The ukulele lies on the chair. There is something in the husband’s eyes as he looks at the musician. Perhaps he knew one day it would end, but not like this. Not with a little musician and an old man. Not in the chamber with his sins.
The musician moves then, her body as swift as her fingers. The bucket goes up, the oil snaking out of it, reaching toward her husband. The professor kicks with his gangly legs, stomping hard enough for the husband to loosen his grip. The professor leaps away. The oil leaps forth. Soon, he is dripping with it.
All the candles are alight. Everywhere. So we push. The candles closest to him rise from their candelabras. He gasps.
Oh my loves, my darlings, it is time.
I could eat the fucking world.
Oh for a muse of fire.
Immolation, he said. That would’ve brought our fourth sister to us. We would’ve loved her as our own, would’ve held her close. But it is not her time, and we promised no more.
The musician runs to the professor, helps him up.
We drop the candles, the flames licking against oil-soaked skin, and his screams become a song.
We will move the smoke outwards into the halls and rooms. We will shrivel all the books in the library. We will char the marital bed to ash. We will bend and melt the dinner plates. The servants will smell it and run. The musician and professor will leave the castle, and they will only look back to make sure that the tower that holds the chamber is fully engulfed. It’s possible the whole castle will fall, but we will do our best to save her trunks, her music.
1-2-3. 1-2-3. The flames grow.
The musician tucks the ukulele under her arm and holds it tight.
Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Apparition Lit, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly.