How He Found a Wife by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines
A pure heart would never trick Death...
There was heat and pain. There was nothing else. There had never been anything else.
The cool rag over her eyes, the drops of water spooned into her mouth were of Paradise. When it withdrew, she tried to call back that gift of mercy, but no sound came through the fires that baked her mortal coil.
Her vision was blurred, but she saw there, at the end of her bed, an old man, gaunt, gray-skinned, his eyes sunken so deep she could not see them, in a Benedictine robe. Last rites, she thought. She must be dying. She felt relief and sank into it.
Hands grabbed her. Voices apologized. She felt pain, tried to tell them not to move her, she wasn't dead yet.
Bitter tea passed her lips. The gaunt priest was at her head. He held her hand, stroked her hair. “What have you done? What have you done?” he murmured. She tried to apologize. The priest put his hand on her forehead. His touch was cool, healing. She closed her eyes. “Not you, dear,” he soothed. “Rest.”
The room was bright. She could feel her body, weak but not burning, she could see the room, could feel life still within her. Her father stood over her, his eyes wet, his expression beatific. Beside him was the physician. He looked triumphant. “There now! She's awake!” His voice was too loud. She closed her eyes. “As soon as she's well enough, we'll wed, and you will name me your heir. I told you I would save her, and so I have!”
Her father sat down on the bed, clutched her hand, and sobbed.
It took great effort, but she laid her other hand over his. Beyond him, in the corner of the room, stood the gaunt priest.
The castle hummed with the preparations for the wedding. Dressmakers came and went, tables were moved in for the feast, everything was polished to a high shine. The quiet priest was never far from her side. When she felt tired she would reach for him, and his arm would bear her back to her rooms. Always silent, he would nod ascent, or shake his head to each activity, approve or reject each dish set before her, and sit, a constant comfort, at the head of her bed each night until she fell asleep.
The physician's voice could be heard ringing in the halls, echoing in the courtyard, as he demanded to inspect the stables, the grain houses, the storeroom, the village and tenants. “This will be mine,” he reminded them all. “My sons shall inherit all of this. I must see to the future.”
The wedding feast would be swan, baked and then covered again with its own feathers; suckling pig glazed in cider; blackbird pie. The wedding clothes would be of cloth gold and lined in silk. The goblets and dishes jewel encrusted. The archbishop was to come perform the ceremony, the physician said.
“No,” she said, and it was the only point she insisted upon, “The Benedictine will perform the ceremony.”
The physician puckered his mouth, as though he'd eaten something rather sour, but he did not press her. On this, she would not be moved. “When you are my wife,” he said in a low voice, “You will do best not to defy me. You will do well to recall that you owe me your life.”
“The Benedictine will serve,” she repeated.
The day itself arrived. She was dressed, with cloth tucked and sewn until she felt she could not breathe. Her hair was brushed and pulled and twisted until her head ached.
The church was awash with candles lighting the way to the altar. The warmth made her swoon, and the flickering brightness hurt her eyes. Still her father bore her to her fate.
The priest began, “Each candle represents a life. The wax of each melts and pools in different ways, much like the varied paths of our lives. Yet each flame must burn out, and we hope that in our time, we light many other candles before that day comes. Now each of you should take the candle before you, the one that marks your life, and join the flames to this one that I hold, which will mark your path together, until your end.”
A slender taper sat before her. A squat stub, the kind used by scholars, sat before the physician. She reached for the taper, as she was bid, but the physician's hand darted in front of her and grabbed the candle away.
He smiled, not with kindness, but smug, as though he'd out-smarted them all.
She reached across, too, and took up his candle stub. She watched him lift the taper and tip it toward the large candle held by the priest, but the melted wax had pooled and the flame was snuffed out.
The physician paled. “No! No, it's not fair!” He dropped the taper, looked around, wild, and then grabbed for the candle stub still in her hand. She stepped back as he lunged for her. He fell dead at her feet.
“Do not fear,” the man in the robes said, and she knew then that he was not a priest after all. And she knew that he had been with her through every hardship, and that his hand had cooled her fevered brow, and dripped water over her parched lips. And she knew that she could never fear him.
“This man will be my husband,” she told her father. “This land shall be our kingdom.”
So she lifted the small stub of wax and lit the flame of Death.
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines loves folklore and fairy tales for what they teach us about what it means to be human. Her writing can be found at workofheartkag.wordpress.com. She lives in New Orleans with her husband, and two fish.