August 24, 2020

Bonus Story: The Wife That Never Was, by Teika Marija Smits


Editor’s note: You weren’t expecting a bonus story, were you? I’m full of surprises, what can I say? This story takes “Bluebeard” and twists it into something I never would have anticipated. It’s a truly fresh take. As for the “bonus story” process, its details will remain mysterious, except for me to tell you that you can’t apply for it or query for it. It just happens.


Life had come to Bluebeard’s castle, or so it seemed. All the servants remarked on it. There was a”‘something” in the air. A sense of a new beginning. Joy, even. This was due to the latest bride, Bluebeard’s seventh wife, Ziva.

 

My, how exquisite she was! Every being who looked upon her ecru skin and sable hair felt their heart throb within them. Even Bluebeard, who thought himself unmoved by human beauty. Ziva reminded him of his youth, of long-forgotten days when his soul was pure. When he, too, was numinous, and one of God’s beloved servants, carrying out His heavenly work. But dwelling on his past—on what might have been—was bittersweet. So he put those memories away and considered the future. He found himself salivating at the prospect of his first trip away; of his return to the wide-eyed Ziva who, with trembling hands, would return to him his set of keys. The littlest, most ornate key—the key to the forbidden room—would be bloodstained, proving her guilt. And he’d rage and roar, his body thrilling with murderous anticipation, while she quivered before him, a little lamb, an innocent doe, unable to escape the huntsman’s knife.


Yet when he returned, Ziva’s hands did not tremble when she returned his keys. His eyes sought out the littlest key. To his great surprise, and disappointment, it was not stained with blood.

 

Ziva put her soft, cool hand to his cheek. “I’ve missed you, Husband.”

 

Bluebeard, lost for words, allowed himself to be led to the divan and plied with drinks and fruit and questions about his trip. As he gazed upon his beautiful bride he couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

 

***

 

Later that night, when his wife was asleep, Bluebeard crept to the forbidden room. On entering the bloody chamber, he was immediately aware that something was wrong. One of his dead wives was missing. She was utterly gone. Not a scrap of hair or flesh or clothing remained. He roared with fury, grabbing at the bodies of the other dead wives, begging them to tell him where she was. They merely hung there, mute.

 

Bluebeard once more studied the littlest key, but there was not a speck of blood upon it. And the key never lied. So how had Ziva done it? He considered confronting her, knife in hand, but then decided against this. There was little pleasure to be had from an ambush. No, it was time for another trip away.

 

***


“Again?” said Ziva, the next morning, disappointed. “But you’ve only just now got back!”

 

Bluebeard managed a mournful sigh. “There is unfinished business I must attend to.”

 

Ziva nodded. “I understand. You’re a perfectionist, my love.”

 

“Remember about the key?” demanded Bluebeard, handing her the large ring of keys. “I forbid you to use it to enter my private chamber. Do you understand?”

 

“Of course, Husband,” said Ziva. “Just as you say.”

 

***

 

Bluebeard was back soon enough, and his wife was very happy to see him. Though, to his dismay, the key was just as it was before. This time, Bluebeard waited for only a short while before going to his bloody chamber. Another wife was missing. He raced back to Ziva, commanding her to tell him the truth: had she used the forbidden key?

 

Ziva swore that she hadn’t. Clearly upset, she asked him why she would do such a thing. It would be a terrible, wicked thing to disobey such a good and loving husband. And wasn’t he the best and most loving of husbands?

 

Bluebeard, uncertain how to act, slumped onto the divan. “Wine,” he muttered. “Bring me some wine.”


Ziva acquiesced.

 

***

 

It was some time before Bluebeard took another trip. Yet when Bluebeard returned, another dead wife was missing. The same thing happened over and over, until all the dead wives were gone. Still, the key remained unblemished. Bluebeard despaired.

 

***

 

“Husband,” said Ziva, on seeing him so broken, “what is the matter? Can you tell me? Indeed, I may be able to help.”

 

“No,” he replied, pulling at his blue beard. There was no one in this realm who could help. He silently muttered to himself as he considered the missing wives. It was possible that Ziva and his steward, though always loyal in the past, were conspiring against him. But how? The key, wrought with the greatest dark power, a power that defied even God Himself, never lied.

 

What if the dead women’s families had finally realized what had happened to them and somehow removed the bodies? By tunneling in? No, that was impossible. He’d checked every stone of the cell; they were as they had always been—solid, unmoving. Besides, he’d always been so careful about choosing his prey. All of them, bar the first, were fatherless girls from poor families, their mothers overjoyed to see their daughters make such a good match. They wouldn’t have the wit to go snooping.


Ziva intruded on his thoughts. “It pains me to have to say this, husband, particularly when you’re so troubled, but I must away for a while.”

 

“Away?” said Bluebeard, goggling at her. “To where?”

 

“To see my father.”

 

“Father?” he said, incredulous. “But I thought you had no father!”

 

“Every being in this world has a father,” said Ziva. “Even you, my love, though you may not acknowledge Him. Do you not remember the importance of fathers?”

 

Ziva began to recite the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father, who art in Heaven—”

 

“Enough!” And Bluebeard muttered something about fathers being weak-hearted fools who cared nothing for their children.

 

“Well, whatever your thoughts on the matter, I must still away.”

 

“Now?” said Bluebeard, his heart suddenly full of sadness.

 

Ziva nodded. “And dearest, will you do something for me, please?”

 

“Yes, of course.”

 

“Refrain from entering your secret room. Just until I return.”


“What?” roared Bluebeard. “You are forbidding me from going to one of my own chambers?”

 

“Not forbidding,” said Ziva, her voice steady, “but asking.”

 

Bluebeard grabbed his wife by the hair and yelled at her to reveal how she had done it. “Was it you who got rid of them? How did you get in there?”

 

Ziva, tears in her eyes, begged him to explain.

 

“Tell me how you did it!” he cried, raising his fist, the bloodlust in him. He was going to enjoy this. But Ziva was no startled doe or quivering lamb. There was a something in her eyes, a fearlessness, which made his blood run cold. Bluebeard lowered his fist and then released her. The next moment the something was gone, and all he could see before him was her sad, startled face. For a fleeting moment he felt a pang of regret.

 

“Go then! Go to your father!”

 

Ziva went.

 

***

 

Naturally, Bluebeard went straight to his secret chamber. But as he was about to place the key in the lock he stopped. Ziva’s beautiful face came to his mind. Maybe she just wanted the best for him. And all this back-and-forthing to his once-bloody chamber was driving him mad and causing him to hallucinate. Perhaps when Ziva returned all would be as it was before. And they could be… happy.


“Ha! What do I know about happiness?”

 

He thrust the key into the lock and then opened the door, the dim torchlight throwing all kinds of strange shadows.

 

And there before him hung his newly dead wife, her slit throat dripping blood.

 

Bluebeard let out an almighty cry and fell to the floor.

 

***

 

There Bluebeard remained, prostrate, for some time, the fabric of his robes soaking up his dead wife’s blood.

 

As he slowly heaved himself off the flagstones he felt a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Why so sad?” asked a voice. “Did you… love her?”

 

Bluebeard spun round. There was nothing there. Just a wisp of smoke.

 

“Show yourself, demon!”

 

“Did you care for her? Or are you sad because you wanted to be the one to kill her?”

 

“She was the most beautiful and obedient woman I have ever known. The perfect wife. She did not deserve to die!”


“Beauty and obedience? Are these the only things that matter in a wife?”

 

The wisp flew about Bluebeard and he whirled around trying to grab it. “Show yourself, trickster!”

 

“All in good time. As I recall, your first wife was beautiful and obedient too. What did she do that made her so deserving of death?”

 

“She did not love me for me! All she wanted was my wealth. And then she began to lust after the stablehand. She deserved to die!”

 

“She did lust, yes,” said the wisp. “But did she actually commit adultery? No. Never. As to love… Well, she held you in great esteem. In time both of you would’ve been happy in the marriage. But you were impatient.”

 

“She coveted that man! She committed adultery. In her mind.”

 

“And who are you to dispense justice? Besides, what about you, Bluebeard? Didn’t you murder Ziva, over and over, in your mind?”

 

“But I didn’t kill her!” he roared.

 

“You didn’t trust her, either, did you?” The wisp sighed. “If only you hadn’t entered the room.”

 

“Tell me, what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come here? Would she be alive still?”

 

A single tear rolled down Bluebeard’s face and was lost to his beard.


The wisp laughed. “You really did care for her, didn’t you? But what if I told you that her beauty was a lie, and that whenever you left the castle she slipped through the keyhole and removed a wife? What would you say then?”

 

Bluebeard was round-eyed, his mouth agape. “I’d say… that isn’t possible!”

 

“Yet here you are, talking to nothing more than a haze of smoke.”

 

Bluebeard backed away, towards the door to the chamber, but the wisp had made sure the door was closed and locked.

 

“You want out, now, do you? After you’d been so desperate to be here? You would’ve done well to listen to your wife and keep away.”

 

Bluebeard’s heart began to pound; sweat sprung to his skin. For the first time in his life Bluebeard was frightened.

 

“Yes, this is how your murdered wives felt too. Horrible, isn’t it?”

 

Suddenly, there was a great rush of wind within the chamber which caused the torches to gutter and Bluebeard to shut his eyes. On opening them he saw that Ziva was gone and, instead, the room contained six dead bodies hanging from the ceiling. They were not his wives. They were him. Six Bluebeards.

 

“This cannot be!” he cried. He ran to the door and threw himself at it. It didn’t budge.


“Oh, but it can, and it is,” said the wisp, becoming more substantial, human-like. It flickered through various forms—a tall hooded figure, with scythe in skeletal hands; then a black-skinned angel, huge, dark wings unfurling behind him; next an ebony jackal, handsome and sleek—until settling on the numinous form of lovely Ziva.

 

“You!” said Bluebeard, as understanding came to him. “I was right all along. You were the one who took my wives from me!”

 

“I returned their bodies to the earth and gave their souls peace. I whispered the truth to their families.”

 

Bluebeard struck out at Ziva, but by the time his fist reached her she was nothing but smoke.

 

When she reappeared in corporeal form she was wielding a sword. The sword that Bluebeard had used to slay his wives.

 

“Mercy!” he cried as Ziva held him to her. “I beg you! Grant a fellow angel mercy!”

 

“You’re no angel!” cried Ziva. “You have fallen! You’re but a wretch who once had the love of God and then lusted for more. Your actions have condemned you!”

 

He tried wrenching himself free, but it was no good, she was stronger than him.

 

Panic welled within Bluebeard, he felt his bladder fail him and then an excruciating pain across his throat. Everything went dark.


***


When he came to, a rough hand hauled him up. “Ready for your second death?” said Ziva, the sword in her hand glinting in the torchlight.

 

Bluebeard gibbered and stumbled backwards, trying for the door again.

 

Ziva grabbed him and once again killed him.

 

***

 

Bluebeard died another four times. When Ziva breathed new life into him for the last time, he opened his eyes and then instantly closed them. “Is this the end?” he breathed. “If so, get it over with quickly.”

 

“No, my sweet, it is not the end. It is only the beginning.”

 

She put a shovel into his hand. “Now you must bury the bodies.”

 

Bluebeard looked at the six dead bodies – bodies that were his – and slowly got to his feet.

 

***

 

Bluebeard spent the next six days at toil, digging graves in his garden. Ziva visited him occasionally, reminding him to make the graves deep. By the end of the week he was exhausted and utterly broken.

 

“Now?” he said, when he saw her again. “Will you be taking me now?”


“No, not yet. As I said, this is only the beginning.”

 

***

 

Guilt, having hitherto been unknown to Bluebeard, was even more excruciating than the blade at his throat. He kept to his bed and longed for death. But when he took matters into his own hands he learnt that suicide was an impossibility—Ziva would stay his hand and keep him alive to endure the pain of grief and remorse.

 

The families of his murdered wives banged at the castle door and shouted at him to come out. They demanded justice for their daughters. Bluebeard went to them, eager to meet his death at their hands, but when he did, a great wind passed through the crowd and whispered to them that they must not touch Bluebeard. Justice had been done—was being done—and they must return to their homes, unsullied by revenge.

 

The families went, and Bluebeard once again took to his bed to be consumed by darkness.

 

***

 

Years passed and slowly Bluebeard began to stir. He let his servants go and distributed his wealth among the villagers. He began to garden, and found satisfaction working the earth, the honest soil planting itself in the creases of his hands.


Sometimes, he would sit on a bench, a haggard, grey-bearded figure, and watch the sun set. At times, he almost felt something like peace. Occasionally, Ziva would join him. Bluebeard would always ask the same question. “Do you forgive me?” And she would always answer, “Yes.”

 

On this occasion, Bluebeard also asked if he was nearing the end. He felt, in his heart, as though it was almost time.

 

“Almost, brother angel,” said Ziva. “And then you will be reunited with your father. Our Father, who art in Heaven.”

 

Bluebeard nodded, acceptance coming to him at last. “And all will be well?”

 

“Yes, my love. All will be well.”


***


Bio: Teika Marija Smits is the editor of The Forgotten and the Fantastical series of fairy tale anthologies. Her own writing is heavily inspired by folklore and has appeared in various places, including Reckoning, Shoreline of Infinity and Best of British Science Fiction 2018. Her name means “fairy tale” in Latvian.


***


Altered image is “Self Portrait,” by Ilya Repin, 1887.

17 comments:

AJ Cunder said...

Marvelously done. A redemptive story that interposes Christian elements and themes without feeling didactic. The mystery of the missing bodies pulls the reader along with some great tension and everything ties together with an ending that is surprising, poignant, and satisfying.

Lynden Wade said...

This kept me guessing all the way through, Teika! I really liked how you channelled the horror into something powerful and redemptive.

Katew said...

This comment actually sums up how I feel about the story. The story really works.

Katew said...

I loved the unexpectedness!

Emily Janik said...

Wow--Bluebeard is one of my favorite stories and this definitely did not disappoint! A beautiful story of undeserved grace that kept my heart on edge throughout.

Katew said...

Glad you enjoyed it!

Kelly Jarvis said...

I love Bluebeard stories, especially ones with a twist! I have often wondered what would happen if the wife did not open the door. It is easy to vilify Bluebeard, and I loved that this story offered him redemption which is the greatest antidote to his reign of terror. A great read!

Katew said...

Yes, the twist, and the way it was manifested were so unexpected.

moirag said...

Enjoyed your take on this Teika, the twists and turns kept me reading. And Bluebeard being shown what might be mercy - or not.

Lissa Sloan said...

I love it!

diane said...

This was so well written and kept me guessing until the end too! I must admit it gave me great satisfaction to see Bluebeard suffer as he had made so many others suffer. Great story!

Maxine said...

A wonderful take on the Bluebeard story and very well told.

Katew said...

I was pleased to publish it.

Katew said...

It still surprised me after reading it several times.

Katew said...

Glad to see you here! 😊

Katew said...

Yes. Hard to tell.

Teika Marija said...

Thank you for all your kind and thoughtful comments on my story. They are very much appreciated! :-)

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