The Pursuit

Last night I dreamt about you again. About the first time we met.

I was running through the forest, pursued by I knew not what. The creatures chasing me were as dark as the night, and in the forest, it is a dark night. I thought I knew the forest, I had walked through it many a time, but all that was clear to me was that I was lost. It seemed to me that on that night, the forest was cursed, or was it me that was cursed? The trees were closing around me. My pursuers were getting nearer, their snarls becoming louder. I wished for a place to hide, but feared derailing from the well-worn path. Instinct told me I was running in the wrong direction, away from the town, instead of towards it. Still, I ran. The forest had to end somewhere. But the further I ran, the thicker the trees got. I wouldn’t be able to run forever, but I could at least do my best to run for as long as possible, after all, there must be a limit to their strength too, surely? I was surprised at my own endurance, even as I allowed myself a small chuckle, you will not catch me that easily. No sooner had I uttered that chuckle than the trees parted in front of me.

I slowed down. Did the trees—move? They didn’t. It was a clearing, a little glade. On the far side of the glade there was a black shape, approaching me, growing larger. I halted.  Ambushed, I thought, this is the end. As the shape moved closer, I saw, in the moonlight, that it was a rider on a horse, and that rider was you. You raised your gloved hand, fingers spread-out. The creatures behind me went quiet. They must have retreated, for when I turned back to look at them, they were gone.

“Need a ride?”

It was you, offering me your hand. I took it, and you lifted me up into the saddle. I thanked you for saving me, but you shrugged it off with, don’t mention it. As if it was no big deal, as if it was not my very life that you just saved. “To town?” You were smiling, and, even then, I wondered if it was the most enchanting smile I’d ever seen.

We set off. “So I was running in the wrong direction,” I said. I explained to you that I had been babysitting the daughter of my friends in the village, and was taking my usual shortcut back home to town, when those creatures sprang out from nowhere, and started chasing me.

“I suppose now’s the time for the don’t-take-the-forest-shortcut-after-dark lecture,” I said. Days were getting shorter, I didn’t realise how dark it would get.

“On the contrary,” you shook your head. “Roam the forest whenever you want. They will not bother you anymore.”

I don’t know what it was about your voice. It was calm, and warm, and so reassuring, but there was iron in it too. I supposed there had to be. “They don’t usually wander that close to human habitat,” you added.

You talked to me about the forest. You knew every inch of it, you rode there every day. I said I’d never seen you there. Although, aside from that shortcut, I didn’t frequent the forest that much, not lately.

“I have seen you,” you said, “taking the shortcut.”

You threw it in there, casually, then continued your narration about the forest, the trees and plants, and how it changed with the seasons. The forest in autumn was magical.

“There’s a horse chestnut tree on my shortcut,” I said, “its leaves in autumn are pure gold.”

You smiled. “There’s even nicer ones deeper in the forest.”

As if, I thought, after tonight. But then again…

Sometimes, a smile is enough to tempt one back deep into the forest.

“Do you go to the village often?” you asked.

“Once a fortnight, at least. I visit my friends, the ones whose daughter I babysat tonight. I help her with schoolwork, she likes me.”

“You must be a good aunt to her.”

“I try.”

We reached town. I dismounted at the end of our main road. “I’ll make my own way from here,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I said, don’t mention it.”

“I meant thank you for the ride, you only said not to mention it for saving me.”

You laughed. “Pleasure.”

I patted your horse’s head. It was a beautiful beast. Not many people still rode horses in this part of the world.

“I’ll see you again soon,” you said.

“Will you?”

Our eyes met. You smiled again. You knew then, didn’t you? Perhaps you had known for a long time, before our meeting in the glade. I stood there, under the lights of the street lamps, my mind already turning our encounter into a story I’d one day tell my friends’ daughter, a story too fanciful for adults, but easily wrapped up in a fairy tale. You might have been a knight. No sword, no armour, but you did have a horse. But why was he dressed in all black, auntie?

Foolish notions!

How could I have known, how could I have had any idea that I would never be the same again, that the memory of your smile and the tiny dots of light in your slate grey eyes would stay with me forever, how could I have known?

And yet, something in me could not just let go. Those creatures. They don’t usually wander close to human habitat, you said. So why were they there, why tonight? And—my reason returning—why had no one ever heard of them? In a village, where they never missed a chance to tell tales, where any rustling of leaves could spark the most fantastical stories?

They will not bother you anymore.

But, what were they?

And earlier, you said: “I have seen you before. Taking the shortcut.”

I could have just say goodnight. Or—

“So,” I said, “how did you do it? How did you stop the monsters?”

Still smiling, you leant down and spoke: “Oh, darling, don’t you know? I’m the greatest monster of them all.”

The Knife Is Sharp

It’s just you.

It has been just you for a while.

You don’t think about the people that used to be there, in the past, not anymore. The painful memories can still haunt you. You got away, each time, you survived, at a cost of not letting anyone else come close. You grow to like it that way. Your life is quiet, peaceful. From time to time, you dream about the great, the impossible, and of one who would understand. But it’s only dreams. All the beautiful things that you love, you enjoy them without company. Most importantly, you have yourself.

Then he enters your life.

At the most unlikely moment of all unlikely moments, in the most unlikely place of all unlikely places. It is like that sometimes. He stands in front of you, tall and imposing, and your first thought is, how can a man’s eyes be this dark? For his eyes are dark, so dark, they are filled with darkness. He smiles and stretches his hand towards you. “Come with me.” His hand is slim and pale, with a large black ring on his middle finger.

You take his hand.

A new world opens to you. He takes you everywhere, gives you everything. His minions wait on you hand and foot. Surely this is too much, you think. It is too much. “Anything worrying you, my love?” he asks. You tell him. He laughs. There is no such thing as overindulgence, he answers, put that out of your mind. So you do. After all, why shouldn’t you enjoy life to its fullest, after… after everything.

He takes your hands into his. “I have known fear too.” He speaks in a low voice. “And pain. And despair.” He gently rubs his thumbs over your knuckles. In that moment, you understand what you share. And you’re not afraid anymore.

You embrace the lifestyle and the lifestyle embraces you. The dreams have come true, the impossible has become possible. He is real, the one that understands. It’s you and him now, the two of you. Your companion to enjoy your beautiful things, and he shows you even more.

Still, you cannot forget the knife. He always has it with him. He lets you hold it and admire it. It’s exquisite, he gushes, exceptional work of craftsmanship. You see your face reflected in the blade. It is of an unusual silvery colour, the blade; the hilt is black. Even from a distance, at a glance, one can see the knife is razor-sharp.

So? What use is a blunt knife, anyway? You hand the knife back to him, he slides it in the scabbard on his belt. He offers you his arm. “Shall we go?” And you go. To pleasure, joy, happiness. And luxury, always luxury.

The grand midwinter ball approaches. He’s talked about it often, you recognise it as the most important event of the year. Your gown has been made for you, a rich red brocade. When you try it on, you never want to take it off. You swirl in it, yes, it’s the real thing. “I can’t wait for the ball,” you tell him, and he smiles.

The day finally arrives. You dress up in your red gown, he’s in his usual black. The ball takes place at a castle in the mountains. It is an old castle, hundreds of years old, with battlements and towers and turrets. The great hall is all lacquered dark wooden floor and long mirrors, several crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The music plays loud and clear and you dance. You spin around on the dancefloor, under the dazzling lights; there are numerous other couples, but you only have eyes for each other. You know he finds you beautiful. He doesn’t have to say it. Those dark eyes of his have not looked like that at anyone else. So you dance, step and slide in a flawless harmony—who knew you could dance this perfectly?—and it feels like you’re flying. You twist backwards, his arm holding your waist. You just want to show off, he says, smiling. He likes it.

And that’s when you ask the question. “How long will this go on for?”

“How long will what go on for?”

“This. Us. Our life together.”

“That, my dear, depends entirely on you.”

“So I can stay as long as I want to, and leave when I want to?”

“Oh no, it’s not that simple.” He throws his head back and laughs. “This has only been a prelude.”

“A prelude to what?”

“To something bigger. And better.”

“For how long?”

“For eternity.”

Shivers run down your spine. “And how will it be done?”

“You only need to use the knife.”

The knife. You should have known it would have to be the knife.

He leads you outside, to the gardens. It’s dark, the moon is a waxing crescent. The ground is covered in snow, but you’re not cold. You’ve not felt cold since you met him. Snow in the night has a different colour, silvery grey. A bit like the knife.

The knife.

“For all of those who have hurt you,” he says, patting the scabbard on his belt.

“But that’s in the past.”

“Is it?”

His question makes you pause. The past it may be, but the scars haven’t faded, if they ever will. “I have everything I want now—and you.”

“You didn’t think that would come without a price, did you?”

Did you?

“N-no.” No, it would not come without a price.

“If you use the knife, everything will be yours.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Nothing,” he shrugs. “You go back to your previous life. But you will remember this.”

“Can I think it over?”

“You don’t have much time. It’s got to be tonight, before midnight.”

That still gives you several hours yet. The night is long, after all, it is midwinter.

“What would you prefer me to do?”

He doesn’t answer. You stand there quietly. You hear music coming from the great hall, another waltz. An owl hoots.

The knife is sharp, you think, always so sharp, razor sharp. But the knife has never been sharpened, you know that for a fact. It has never been sharpened, ever, in its entire existence. And how long is that existence? The history of time, your inner voice whispers. No, this is no ordinary steel. This is devil’s steel.

“This castle,” you gesture towards the very structure, “it belongs to you, doesn’t it?”

“It does. So do many things.”

Yes, they do. “You, too, can have it,” he continues. “If you take the knife.”

But you can’t, that is just it. It’s not you. This has been amazing, for sure, but—

“Has it even been real?”

“Of course it has. I said a prelude, not an illusion.”

“But my old life—“

“Is still there. Your job, your apartment. You can return.”

You liked your job. And your apartment.

“I will not see you again.”

“You won’t.”

You look into his eyes. It seems as if they deepen, and you feel yourself falling into that darkness. You and him for—what was it he said? For eternity.

You pull back. You cannot allow yourself to become that. Not even for him. 

“Why me?” you ask.

“You must know why.” His voice softens. “You and I, we are the same.” He stretches his hand towards you, but this time you don’t take it.

You shake your head. “I can’t.”

Somewhere down beneath your consciousness, you knew what he was, from the start. The dark eyes. The power. The decadence. “I know the truth,” you say.

“I never lied to you.”

“You didn’t tell me who you were.”

“You didn’t ask. In any case, you know now.”

“About those things that happened to you… in the past… that was true as well, wasn’t it?”

“It was. I told you I never lied.”

He doesn’t lie, you know. He doesn’t need to. Your eyes fall on the black diamond on his finger. “I should have known you were the villain all along,” you say.

You won’t mind going back to your old life, you were quite happy living it. But can you truly live again, without the only one who ever understood you?

You will keep the memories. Some sweet memories, at last. You’ll relive them, over and over again.

But your souls have touched.  Nothing will ever compare to that, ever.

“So, what’s it going to be?”

His tone, as if he was asking what you want to order for dinner, is charming and infuriating at the same time.

But you have no time for either.

The knife is drawn from the scabbard. The hand that holds it is steady.

The blade glistens in the moonlight.

His lips curve into a smile, and it’s that type of smile that thinks it knows you better than you know yourself.

Music still flows from the great hall, couples are dancing, and the knife is sharp.

You look him in the eye.

“I’m not like you,” you say.

He holds the gaze. “But if I’m the villain,” he says, amused, “why is it your hand that is holding the knife?”


Inspired by OWLG #225 prompt “look the devil in the eye”, which I slightly modified by changing “the devil” to just “him”. Thank you for reading!

The Silver Candlestick

Antoinette rubbed the candlestick with her thumb.

It was a solid object, silver plated and heavy, with ornaments carved along the rim of its round base. How old it was, she could not tell. It may been in the family for twenty, thirty years, or have been a part of Edward’s mother’s trousseau.

Or maybe Edward stole it from someone else’s house.

The candlestick was empty, the candle having burned out. A new one should be brought up soon; grey daylight pouring into the room was getting darker. The sky was overcast, doubtless it would soon rain again.

The room was medium-sized, with mismatched pieces of furniture. A bed, a nightstand, a wardrobe and a dresser, two armchairs—at least those were of the same set—and a small table. Dull brown carpet. No mirror, no pictures hanging on the walls, no vases of flowers or trinkets. The wallpaper was an ugly yellow shade with a green pattern resembling leaves. She disliked it on first sight. One afternoon she found herself staring at it so hard, she could make out monsters hidden behind it. This was her life now. I shall go mad in here.

She stood up and walked to the window. Small, dirty, and could be open for only an inch, but it was a window. Window to the world. It existed, she reassured herself of it. A yard, an unimpressive garden, and beyond it—the moors. Stretched away to eternity, the horizon shrouded in a mist. Her feet ached with longing to get out, run out there, to those moors and run and run and run, never to return. But she would have to wait. That one time she tried to get away, they caught her before she could reach the main road. She hadn’t thought it through, she just ran. And she didn’t even have any warm clothes, it was so windy on the moors. She would have died of exposure. Next time, she would be cleverer. She would plan it out. She’d act as if she was resigned to her fate in the attic, and secretly plan her escape. He’d see. One morning he would enter the room and find the bed empty. She’d be gone.

The moors only looked like they stretched for eternity. They must end somewhere, England was an island. She also knew there was a city, Leeds, not ten miles away. If she could only get there, she would be able to contact Richard to ask him to come for her. She didn’t know which direction Leeds was. But she would find out, she would. He’ll see.

The wind rose, making whistling sound up in the roof. Antoinette shivered. It was so cold in England. She thought of Jamaica, of Spanish Town, the blue skies and palm trees. The St Jago de la Vega cathedral with its stained-glass windows. It used to be her favourite. Then she got married there.

She didn’t know that Edward was… like that, then. Nobody did. Richard was so certain it was a good match. “He’s from an old family, from Yorkshire in the north of England. The second son.” How could her brother have known? Edward presented himself as the perfect English gentleman, albeit not an heir. (She was the one with the wealth.) She had fancied she could love him even, despite his ugliness. Most of all, she believed they could make it work. She had been determined to make it work. Mutual respect and trust, if not love. So much she wanted to please him. Edward, dear, tell me what you want… just talk to me, please… She would have broken her back for him. But he only turned away from her, grumpy at the weather, the food, everything West Indian.

Edward became more withdrawn when the news of his father’s death came, yet he didn’t seem to mourn too much. The crease between his eyebrows deepened. She also suspected he hated his older brother. And then he died too, the brother, unexpectedly. Unmarried and childless. Overnight, Edward became the owner of Thornfield Hall. That was what the seat of Rochester family was called. One morning at breakfast he announced they would be leaving for England to settle there. “As you wish,” she said. Even if she had a choice over the move, why oppose it? Richard was often away on business trips and her parents were dead. Moving to England might be for the best. If nothing else, it would make Edward happy.

Her naivety would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so tragic.

Because he got even worse. Everything changed for the worse after that voyage.

Surely it was not her fault that she was so seasick, she didn’t want to be seasick. For once she stopped worrying about his moods, all her energy poured into surviving till the end of the voyage. “For god’s sake, Edward, no one chooses to be seasick!” she snapped at him once at dinner. An elderly couple at the next table stared at them. “Be quiet, woman, you’re causing a scene,” he retorted. All the better for you, she thought, reading sympathy on the faces of the man and the woman, sympathy not for her but for the poor Englishman stuck with a horrible Creole of a wife. So this is how it’s going to be. By the time they finally landed in Liverpool, she had almost lost the will to live. In the carriage to Yorkshire, she leant her head against the window and alternated between dozing off and watching the countryside. England didn’t look that bad. She only needed to get used to the climate, that was all. It shouldn’t be too hard. She wouldn’t be like Edward in Jamaica. Everything would get better, once they got to Thornfield Hall.

Oh, how foolish she was!

No more did she harbour those illusions. And she could kick herself now for being so stupid the time she attempted to escape. That was when he locked her in the attic. “You’re unwell, Bertha,” he said. “You need to stay indoors.”

He called her Bertha now, he said it was more English. She suggested that he used Antonia instead of Antoinette, if he wanted an English name. He gave her a confused look.

“Is Bertha not your name?” he asked.

“It is but you know very well I’ve always been called by my middle name.”

“I don’t know any such thing. Bertha is a perfectly good, respectable name.”

She didn’t deny that. She just didn’t like it. “It was for my paternal grandmother,” she said.

“And your paternal grandmother was English.” That apparently settled the matter.

It couldn’t have been as long ago as it seemed. In the attic, time measured differently. Days were weeks, weeks were months.

Sound of steps outside the door, key in the lock. Edward entered the room.

“Your dinner will be here shortly,” he said.

She wouldn’t thank him for not starving her to death, but still, food was some comfort. “I will need a new candle too,” she said.

“I will bring you one.”

He spoke almost kindly. A stranger overhearing their conversation—the elderly couple from the ship, for example—might conclude Edward was a caring husband. “I have hired a nurse for you, a Quaker,” he continued, “she will be here tomorrow. Her name is Grace Poole. She will look after you.”

“I don’t need looking after.”

“Yes you do. You know you do. She will be a company for you as well. I have to be away a lot.”

“You didn’t mention that before.”

“I did. You forgot again.”

He didn’t. She would have considered that good news, and she heard no good news since her arrival to England.

“Where is it that you have to go?”

“London, the Continent. Places.”

“You should take me with you.”

“You know I can’t.”

“I am your wife.”

“Which is precisely why I can’t risk you getting any sicker.”

She put the candlestick on the table. “That’s not the reason.”

A faint smile appeared on his face. “What is the reason, then?”

“You want to act like you’re unmarried, so you can seduce women.”

He laughed. “My dear, you truly are unwell. What the devil gives you such ideas?”

“Tell me then,” she lowered her voice, “why have there been no visitors to Thornfield? Why has no one come to greet me, as the new lady of the house? Where are your other relatives, friends?”

“You’re making up tales, Bertha. The staff know you’re here.”

“What staff? A footman and a housemaid, who’s clearly new here. A cook, who never leaves the kitchen. You don’t even have a housekeeper.”

“Hear, hear! Is Thornfield not good enough for you? I don’t remember having a legion of servants in Jamaica.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t understand what I mean!”

“What has got into you, Bertha?” He sounded almost amused. “This is not you. I cannot believe it. Look, here’s Mollie with the tray.”

He stepped into the corridor. It took all her willpower to remain sitting in the chair.

Edward put the tray with food on the table. “Here you go. Eat some, it will make you feel better. Let me go get you a candle.” He went out.

She sighed. What got into her, indeed? It wasn’t that she was wrong about what she said—she knew she wasn’t—but why say it out aloud? He’ll think you even crazier now. She rubbed her temples. Oh, to hell with it. What did she care if Edward chased other women? She didn’t want him anyway. They stopped sharing the bed a lifetime ago. Was it worse than locking her in the attic?

I need to get out of here. Richard, I need to send a word to Richard, he will come for me. It was pointless to write him letters from here, Edward would never send them.

And then her chest tightened, and her heart stopped beating, and the blood froze in her veins, you stupid, stupid-stupid-stupid-stupid, you are not getting away anywhere, ever again, you will never get out of here, and she let out a cold, bitter, menacing chuckle that scared even her own self.

She missed her chance. That Grace Poole creature was coming to keep a watchful eye on her. She would stay in the attic forever.

She grabbed the candlestick and clutched it till her palms ached.

The door opened, Edward returned with the candle.

“You haven’t touched your dinner,” he remarked.

She threw the candlestick at him.

It barely hit his shoulder. He looked at her with shock. “So is this what you are like? Violent, is that it?”

He picked up the candlestick and placed it on the table. She had never seen his eyes this cold.

“Now you listen to me, Bertha,” he said slowly, in an icy tone, “I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. If you attempt to attack me again, I will put you in restraints. I shall not have any disobedience. Do you understand?”

“I understand more than you think,” she said, in equally icy tone.

“Good.” He put the candle in the candlestick and lit it. “Now eat. Mrs Poole will arrive early in the morning.”

He walked out of the room and locked the door.

The wind threw first drops of rain against the window. The candle was burning, the flame dancing on the wick like a young maiden at a ball. Once, long ago, that was her too. It was at a ball she was introduced to Edward Fairfax Rochester, a ball organised by the Elmbridges for their youngest daughter, who had just come of age. “Handsome he certainly is not,” Cecily whispered to Antoinette’s ear and giggled. He wasn’t, Antoinette agreed, and had no fortune either. But that didn’t matter, because she had. He was so charming at that ball, a flawless nobleman, and not a bad dancer, he even made her laugh once or twice. The only thing she wondered about was why he had to cross the Atlantic to find a rich bride, whether there weren’t any heiresses closer to home. But she didn’t dwell on it. More likely he just longed to travel to West Indies. This landscape was so different from his own, he told her, fascinating. And she believed him. Everyone did. Even Richard was fooled, her brother that was so sharp in business matters. Edward played his game well.

The new master of Thornfield Hall needed no inconvenient Creole wife any more. He was free to go about his life pretending she didn’t exist. Seducing good, unsuspecting women, then discarding them like an old newspaper, once he got bored. He would dismiss Mollie and the footman and hire new servants who would never learn of any wife. The only one who would know would be Mrs Poole, her gaoler, paid to keep her locked and to keep her mouth shut.

Could she, with time, turn Grace Poole into her ally? Make friends with her, talk to her about things. Tell me about your family, Mrs Poole. Where did you grow up? That sort of stuff. And with time… Which way is Leeds?

Unlikely. Edward would sure pay Grace Poole a large salary, there would be nothing in it for her to break her loyalty.

She was trapped.

Torrents of rain raged against the windowpane, but it was a storm she wanted. Wild, like her rage. Her eyes would stay dry from now on, no more tears, only rage. Trapped. An attic room with forgotten furniture, small window and horrid wallpaper, this was her lot. Death would be her only absolution.

Death…

Unless Edward dies first.

How? A healthy man of not yet thirty?

Unless

She didn’t exactly imagine killing him—difficult to accomplish in her situation and besides, she would never get away with it—but there were always accidents. If she could earn Grace Poole’s trust, after a while, she might let her out of the attic sometimes. Quakers were supposed to be good people.

Antoinette looked at the candlestick. The poor thing didn’t deserve to be thrown against Edward. “I’m sorry I misused you like that,” she said and caressed it. How beautiful the dancing flame was! Fire really had a beauty in it, now that she thought of it. Accidents

She sighed.

She picked up the fork and tucked into her dinner.


Author’s Note: As you no doubt were able to guess, the protagonist of this story is no other than the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a character that has long had my fascination. In the book, her name is Bertha Antoinetta, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s prequel, she is called Antoinette (after they marry, Rochester starts calling her Bertha). I simply combined the two. As it is technically a fanfic, I tagged it as such. I like playing with these characters and imagine different scenarios and headcanons, though this is the first time I’ve written a story from her POV.

Thank you, Short Story Generator for giving me an idea! (A seriously useful and funny website full of generators–try it out!)

The detail about wallpaper is from the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which I jokingly refer to as the Madwoman in the Attic Origin Story. Like Jane Eyre, it’s also in public domain and you can read it for free here. (I’ve just realised that the writers are both Charlottes.)

The bit about Antoinette wanting a storm wild like her rage was inspired by the line “she wanted a storm to match her rage” from A Feast For Crows by George RR Martin. The she in question is Cersei Lannister, another one of my favourite characters, who also happens to be hated (sometimes so viciously it worries me) by the fans of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire.

And last but not least, many thanks to tnkerr of The New, Unofficial, On-line Writer’s Guild, one of whose weekly prompts have, erm, prompt me to write this. The prompt was “it might burn down your house”. In the end I didn’t use that line, it didn’t fit the story, but it definitely sparked my imagination, so credit where credit’s due.