Mirrors Do Not Make Promises
The evil-queen-to-be looked into the magic mirror and asked: “Am I beautiful?”
The mirror had not been addressed in many years, hanging like an island in the center of the iron chamber. The curtain was gone though. The room smelled of dust. There was light somewhere, oh lords, there was light.
The mirror, a phantom outline on the surface, peered down. A girl stood, hooked nose, thin lips, dark hair the texture of crow’s feathers, and ruddy skin– both too pale and flushed all at once. If one's jawline could be described as delicate and breakable then hers was the opposite of that. Teeth like overlapping piano keys and body gangly as a newborn calf. She wore the finest gown of deep purple, heavy and dragging on the dirty floor.
Her chin wobbled. She had a determined set to her gaze, but her cheeks were tear-stained, and eyes as red as daybreak, at least the types of daybreak the mirror could still remember. The mirror tilted her head.
“Am I beautiful?!” the girl repeated and stomped her foot this time, pinpricks of tears spilling out. There was a purpling welt across her right cheek, a bruise forming with a tinted yellow edge. She must be an island as well.
The mirror closed her eyes. She nodded. “You will be. You have been. You are.”
The girl’s eyes went large as entire skies, at least, the type of skies the mirror could still remember. “Promise?” It was a child’s whisper.
“I do not make promises,” the mirror replied, and the girl huffed.
“Fine.” The curtain returned.
“Am I beautiful?”
The evil-queen-to-be was taller now, growing into herself. Her hollow cheeks had rounded, and teeth slowly straightened out through small spells and larger ones. The mirror had felt when she found that little black book, a moldy, stained thing, fleshy and dank. The mirror did not always spread her awareness out into the lives of men, but there was no ignoring the tremor through the air that night.
“Did you hear me?” The girl had returned, on the cusp of forgoing shorter hems and growing into the adult ones.
The mirror hummed. “You again. My girl.”
“You again, my mirror.” The girl sneered. She narrowed her eyes. “Do you even have a name?”
“No.” The mirror responded. “Do you?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “I suppose you do not hear them yelling it through the hallways, Esme! Esme! Foolish, tricky girl, always with her books and always with her sullenness.”
“I do not hear them. No.”
The girl blinked several times. “Oh.”
“Esme.” The mirror tried out the name.
“You may call me Lady Esme.” She sniffed loudly and crossed her arms. “I’m nobility.”
“Of course, my lady.” The mirror inclined her head. “Ask your question then.”
The girl considered her for a long moment. “Am I beautiful?”
“Have you not asked before?”
The girl flushed a deep red and glared at her shoes. “You’re just like everyone else.” She twisted in place to leave.
“Of course,” the mirror murmured. “You are beautiful.”
Esme glanced shyly over her shoulder. “Really? You promise?”
“I do not make promises.”
The door slammed, but the curtain did not return.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” the young woman sang and skipped. “Who should I poison at the ball?” She carried a flower and small book tucked away at her side. The mirror had watched her fill the book with cramped tiny handwriting, coded through a complex numerology.
It was filled with the secrets of the tomes she unearthed and more she made herself. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” she kept singing. “Who should I poison with my comb?”
“You jest.” The mirror spoke slowly. “But if you must poison one, poison the only son of the Duke of Engles. He plans to bed a scullery maid and will not be easily deterred.”
The evil-queen-to-be stopped in place and faced the mirror. Her clever face and clever eyes were cold and sharp. She was older now. “Noted,” she said thoughtfully and plucked at the flower in her hand. She lifted her chin up high, “this will be my first showing.”
“I know.” The mirror replied. “You will dance and make merry. Be careful of the wine, my lady.”
“How do you know so much?” Esme squinted and leaned forward. “What exactly do you know?”
“I know everything reflected in the world of men and more.” The mirror said and watched the light fall across the floor. She still wasn’t facing the window, and how her chest ached for it.
“But how?” Esme insisted.
“I am old,” she stated simply.
Esme rolled her eyes. “Well, I could have guessed that.”
“But ageless. Time cannot touch me, nor can I touch it. But I can peer through its many threads into the greater tapestry.”
Esme tilted her head thoughtfully, mind at work. “So,” she said with a cat-like smirk. “I really will be beautiful.”
“You are. You have been. You will be.”
Esme went blank for a moment before turning in place. “I must prepare for my debut on the market.” She sprouted a sharp grin and looked over her shoulder. “And who should I marry there, my mirror?”
The mirror did not blink. “The king.”
Esme’s eyes lost their mischief, she frowned, and closed the door softly.
“They’ll burn me, they’ll burn me!” Esme cried and paced back and forth. She was still wearing a luscious green gown with bell-shaped sleeves. It was torn in places, sullied. “Dammit, they know!’
A roar of voices came from down below. The mirror knew the lady hadn’t meant to face the Duke’s son and win. She hadn’t meant to use her secrets on a whim. But she had.
Esme tore at her hair. “This is it! They’ll tie me to the post for sure.”
“Sneak past the gathered mob, take the body down to the pond,” the mirror instructed without inflection. “Color his beard with blue paste and say it was the lady of the lake.”
“What?” Esme turned and searched the mirror’s face.
“Slay the lady with a sword, it will be easy, she is old. Call the king and tell him of how you were forced to take up arms.” The mirror continued. “Blame the magic of the hour on the water lady’s powers.”
Esme’s eyes were huge again, like skies, like a child. “You mean,” she whispered, stilled. “But where will I get a sword? How will I hide what I have done?”
“You know the answer, I’ve spoken true. Do not hesitate,” the mirror growled. “Go!”
The new queen carried the mirror under her arm. It was wrapped carefully in sheets and twine, held close to her body at an awkward angle. Esme threatened any servant that drew too close: No, I don't want help. I’ll be carrying this one myself. Don’t handle it, don’t breathe on it, don’t look. Gone with you!
The trip was long and jarring. The carriage rattled. The heat sweltered. The queen loosened the twine now and then, pressing a single finger to the glass. “We’re close,” she murmured with reverence. She hid her small books better now. “We’ve done it.”
The palace trumpets bellowed on the third day and Esme gasped. The mirror strained to see.
“Do you hear that?” Esme’s fingers lingered warmly across the glass. “For us.”
The mirror exhaled slowly. “Can you put me by a window?” She ventured slowly. “High up. Where I can see the sky.”
“Of course.” Esme responded. “Anything, anything at all.”
The queen’s tower was the tallest in the castle. She bargained for it with words and favors the mirror did not pry into. It had windows, left and right and behind. Enormous bays with shutters pushed open and birds that landed on the sills, curiously.
The mirror considered sending messages, but there was no one left who knew her. No one left to break the glass and return her to any sort of life. Besides, it had been so long, she wasn’t sure she remembered how.
And there was the sky.
The queen visited her daily, brought her scandalous gossip, brought her political news. She was laughing now, and golden. No one slapped her within these walls, no one commented on her hooked nose or hair that wouldn’t smooth.
The mirror studied her. “You are becoming beautiful, my lady, as you have always been.”
“Ah, but no promises?” The queen joked and plopped a grape in her mouth. She was always peeling oranges, biting into apples, and sampling fresh fruits now.
The mirror smiled. “Exactly.” There was a bitterness there. “No promises.”
Thunder struck the earth and rain battered against the windowpanes. The mirror did not sleep, and storms reminded her of why she never wished to. She was humming an old and lovely song when footsteps pounded down the hall.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall!” Esme burst into the room, chest heaving, eyes wild. “Mirror, oh God, oh God … What is wrong with me?”
Her cheeks were ruddy and hair in disarray. She was panting and clutching at her chest as if to wrench her own heart out of it. Her eyes were sunken, and lips colored a bright and brilliant shade of blood.
The mirror bowed her head. “It’s been a while, my liege.”
The queen reached forward with trembling fingers. “They haven’t let me visit.” Her lips curled back. “They are whispering.”
The mirror hummed. “I can hear them. Many wicked things.”
The queen closed her eyes. “Tell me.” She said in a pained rush. “Why does my belly not swell?” She swirled around. “Why am I barren?”
The mirror stared at her impassively. “You will know children.”
The queen exhaled and stared down at the floor. Then she tensed again, every nerve in her body taught and singing. “Will they be of my body?” She always was too clever. “Will I bear them?”
“She will be beautiful.” The mirror replied. “This princess.”
The queen covered her face and shook with a violent silent laugh. “I see. And will I hurt her?” She tossed her head back. “Or will they kill me before I can?”
The mirror’s brow creased. Something pulsed inside her that hadn’t since she knew the taste of berries and the sound of leaves crunching underfoot.
“There is a way,” she said steadily. “Become what you are meant to be and give up everything.”
The queen shook her head vigorously. “No … No! Just tell me how to become with child.”
“There is no way.” The mirror stated. “You are magic, my queen.”
“Demon! Wicked, traitorous thing!” Esme flew at her, fists balled, face twisted. She meant to break her. She meant to shatter the mirror to pieces small enough to swallow.
She stopped at the last second, staring deeply into the mirror’s eyes– the last of her past self, blue and golden as her people were. “Mirror.” She collapsed against the surface and folded into herself. “Am I beautiful?”
“Always.” The mirror pressed a hand to her cage. “Always, my lady.”
Esme wept and sagged and did not stand again until the dawn fanned its long fingertips across the land. The queen wiped her face clean then, got out her small book, and started scribbling.
The mirror listened. The birds whispered to her and she pushed her own senses out into a vast ocean of things. She heard of how the people glared and told their tales: a woman who made milk curdle. A woman who studied devilry and brought the fires and the rain. A woman who did not feel love or pain. Beautiful, too beautiful, and vain.
The mirror listened. She inserted herself back into the world of men.
Her birds planted poison in the cups of guards, all those would-be assassins. She sent rumors of worse things if the cooks dared consider putting glass into her meals. The mirror did not let the bishops speak of ordaining a royal separation, and she did not let the people bring their torches or their manacles.
Esme visited more in those years. She sat beneath the mirror and asked her questions about life, the earth, and everything. A hungry creature, never satisfied, and attracted to the darkest things. She asked of monsters, storms, defying death, she asked of how to break prisons and escape any form of cage.
She wrote every word the mirror said down, and then added on her own. The questions only kept coming.
“Are you good, mirror?” Esme asked one day, huddled on the floor and far too thin. The King was off securing his heir, a daughter from a previous wife. The disgraced first queen had graciously bowed into the night in the wake of a gross scandal. She had no stomach for public hatred and they were allowed to retreat to the countryside. The king thought nothing of the loss then. Of course, he realized, too late, that no son was about to appear and went to fetch his only non-bastard child. Esme remained, scribbling.
“What do you say, my mirror, are you good?”
“I do not think so, no.” The mirror replied slowly. “I am being,” she searched for the word, “punished? I was put here on purpose.”
“Why?” The queen’s brow furrowed.
The mirror shrugged in her way. “I was troublesome.” She admitted, finding herself strangely self-conscious after all this time.
Esme snorted. “Good.” She turned the page of her book. “I would not have you any other way. Can you imagine? I’d be so alone in this world if you were good.”
The mirror smiled and later that night she sent birds to pluck out the eyes of local soldiers who came to kill her queen with poison daggers.
The story goes as it always does, the threads of the tapestry coming together with the princess and the apple. The weak hunter and the beauty with her heart still beating. A terrible sleep, a glass coffin, a kiss. Of course, it always goes differently then the way people write it down. A tapestry has many ways to catch the light.
The queen came to the mirror at last, crawling on her knees and whimpering. She smelled of smoke. “Can we leave now?” She begged. “Is it over?”
“It never ends.” The mirror said without feeling. “I know that much.”
Esme looked up with her bright shining eyes and a lightning burn across her cheek. She touched the mark lightly, unseeing. “I am not beautiful.”
The mirror reached for her, pressing her hand flat against her cage. “I would have you believe otherwise, my queen,” she croaked. “I would make promises.”
The queen staggered forward. She placed her palm against the mirror in turn. Their hands overlaid like kissing shadows. Fingertips aligned with no hint of warmth or skin. “I love books you know. And ugly things. I am crooked, cruel, and I have done so many things I am not proud of. Things I cannot take back.”
“Good.” The mirror returned forcefully. “I would hate to be alone.”
Esme took out a flask and it smelled of copper.
She always was too clever. The queen murmured secret words, pouring blood against the surface and burning it away like mist. The creature within drew long hard breaths as time rushed back in, inch by inch, plunging its fingers into her reanimating flesh. She pushed forward like a drowning sailor through tar-black waters.
“Is it enough? Please, let it be enough. I’ve done it. I’ve given up everything.” Esme reached and reached, pouring blood and pressing toward her. “Can you come out yet?”
In many ways, she did not expect anything, she did not expect it to work—much as you don’t expect an eclipse as surely the sun was permanent. A hot spill of tears was the first shock. Who could be making her face wet like that? Who was making those terrible noises? Oh, but there could be miracles. The second was the evil queen’s hand, quick and warm and real. She couldn’t imagine anything more solid; the universe couldn’t possibly create something like that or surely the residents of this world would do nothing all day but hold each other.
The third shock was the edgeless loveliness of her mouth.
The mirror knew infinity. It was all she knew within that cage, oh but this, this was the sky. The salt and tears mixed with that brilliant rush of soft lips against soft skin. The mirror shuddered. She tucked them together and felt a pattering heartbeat against her own.
“Can I ask you questions now?” She, the Sylph, her, she rasped as Esme tangled them together, the ends of shredded threads forming knots. The Sylph looked into her eyes. “Can I make you promises?”
Esme laughed dryly, broken. “What answers could I possibly give you? I know so very little.” The queen peppered kisses on her cheeks. “But I am yours to command, anything you wish.”
“Take me away.” The mirror pleaded. The evil queen kissed the Sylph’s palm and pulled her away.
“Yes, as far as you like. Anywhere.”
The Sylph never saw that room again, she never saw that tower, or the castle or the princess now turned ruler, but she saw the sky, unfolding and unfailing. In the woods beyond the lands of men, they took out rings beneath that sky, and made promises.
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Getting married has been something I’ve always wanted and simultaneously knew I would never have. I’m not the easiest person to deal with. I’m particular as shit, ornery and I like my space, my independence, my solitude. But at the same time- well. Everyone wants to love. To know and say they have a family that loves them. And my birth family might’ve said they loved me. They certainly loved their daughter.
It turned out they didn’t love how she insisted she was their son.
You know how that kind of thing goes. It really doesn’t have too much to do with this story except giving me a complex about belonging to a family that wanted me for myself.
When I saw the ad on Craigslist, I was looking for used furniture. Scrolled too fast, accidentally opened up domestic gigs. The first listing caught my eye.
“Wanted: Compassionate man to marry our recently deceased daughter.”
The initial click was just out of morbid interest.
It read, simply enough, “Our daughter wanted to be married and we want to keep our promise to her that she would be. She has passed away, and we are seeking a kind and compassionate man to engage in a quiet, non-legally binding ceremony and become our in-law.
“This is not a joke and we are in bereavement. Please keep this in mind when considering your reply.”
It got taken down within the next five minutes, either by the family or moderation, but I’d already texted the number provided.
I did some research to help fill in the gaps, but ultimately it didn’t help much. There’s been a tradition of posthumous marriage in France since the 1950’s, but it’s only for if the couple had serious intent to wed beforehand, and the president has to review the request. (Apparently 1 in 4 aren’t approved.) More famous is Chinese ghost marriage- “mínghūn”- and those are for completing intended marriages, continuing lineage, or giving an unmarried daughter’s spirit a proper place in an ancestral tree. Apparently, however, it’s far more common to marry two deceased individuals, and besides, the whole family was for all appearances as Irish as I am.
When I met up with them- at a nice little coffee shop in downtown, halfway between us both- the way they explained made it all come together.
Their names were Cara and Donovan. I won’t give their last name, but you can rest assured it had an O’ at the start. Their daughter, Melanie, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, last year. The doctors had given her ten months. She had made it four before having a generalized seizure in the middle of the night.
They’d gotten her to the hospital, but they told me that she had been in something called status epilepticus, which meant that she just kept seizing. None of the medication had been able to make it stop, and at 3:42 AM, she was gone.
Melanie, too, had always wanted to be married. Before the seizure took her, they’d all been in the process of trying to find her a future widower to marry her for the short while she had left. It hadn’t happened in time. They wanted to fulfill her final wish anyway. They had done the same research I’d done.
“For closure,” Cara said to me. “We know it’s for us. Maybe we like to think Mel will be happy about it too, but we know it’s really for us.”
The two prospects they’d been speaking with for a temporary marriage, both also terminal patients with a similar wish, had balked at the idea of continuing with the plan after her passing. Cara and Donovan had turned to several different avenues of advertisement.
And so I was here.
We talked about why I wanted to do it, too. I told them about being a loner, wanting a family, wanting to know there was somebody out there- alive or not- who would be with me in one way or another until I died. They said that was a good reason. I told them I worked from home, wasn’t good with people, wasn’t good with romance, and at this point in my life I could genuinely see myself being committed to a woman I would never meet. They told me they understood, that they were sorry I’d been so lonely. We talked about my work, and my hobbies, and their hobbies.
Finally, bracing myself, I told them I was transgender. They exchanged a glance, and then Donovan met my eyes and smiled.
“That’s not a problem,” he said, gently. “So was she.”
When they invited me to dinner, to a family dinner like I hadn’t been to for years, of course I said yes.
I was excited. I really was. Even if this didn’t work out, I was looking forward to that dinner. I wanted to sit down and eat and talk with these people who had accepted their daughter without qualms, who had accepted me. I wanted to know what it was like, even if it was just once.
It was wonderful. It was perfect. It wasn’t just once.
I met Melanie’s younger brother, Sean. He wasn’t in full pitch support of the whole ghost marriage plan, but he spoke frankly and without rancor about believing it would help Cara and Donovan move on. We talked about work and Sean’s college major- ceramics. He even showed me some pictures of projects he’d put in the kiln that day on his phone. They were really beautiful, and I told him so, and he seemed quietly pleased, though his thanks were subdued.
Then we talked about Melanie.
Her family loved her. They loved her so, so much. I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices when they talked about her. None of them shied away from mention of her cancer or her death. I think they’d come to terms with it when she was diagnosed, quickly, so that they could spend the time she had left well, and they handled their grief by facing it directly, bringing it into the light. I admired them for that. I still do. I handled the loss of my family, such as it was, by shying away from it, burying myself in work and isolation until I forgot them, until the pain was so distant I didn’t remember to feel it.
Melanie’s family handled her loss by loving her until it eclipsed the pain of losing her. Listening to them talk about her like that, the bold and bright adoration in every word, I couldn’t help but start to love her too.
That dinner marked the beginning of the year in which I courted a ghost.
I spent more time with the family than I had spent with anyone in- shit, maybe years. It was a sharp adjustment, but it felt good. Like moving a limb just let out of a cast, or squinting into the sunlight until your eyes adjust. We got along well; had the same sharp senses of humor, the same sensitivity to noise, the same lapsed Catholic attitudes. Cara and I shared a fondness for Irish myth, and Donovan and I both loved NCIS. I read up about contemporary ceramic artists so I could talk to Sean about his major.
It helped that we had a common goal: we wanted very badly to get along. I wanted to be part of their family, and they wanted me to be part of it just as much. We were all praying I was the right fit. Maybe I was courting them more than Melanie.
They told me so many stories about her. They told me about her interests, what she studied, the kinds of trouble she got in. They showed me her room, and Cara even had me sniff a scarf that still smelled like her. They showed me almost endless pictures and videos, from home videos to school portraits to selfies to candids to the majority: hours and hours of footage documenting the last four months of her life.
Donovan told me, in his low, soft tone, that when she had started chemo in earnest, started getting really sick, he had realized how little of her he might have to remember. He told me it terrified him.
He took up recording as much as he could.
As a result, the Melanie I knew best was the Melanie who was weak and sick from chemo, almost always laid up in bed, in the hospital more than half the time.
She had no hair, no eyebrows or eyelashes. She was deathly pale, even her many freckles washed out to near-invisibility, her lips blanched and cracked. She often snapped at the camera, was impatient and sarcastic with her parents, her brother, the many nurses and doctors. They had recorded her gagging and vomiting, if only incidentally, because by the third month they were all numb to it and when it happened all Donovan did was set the camera aside to rub her back before picking it back up.
She also had the most beautiful laugh I had ever heard, and her face was round and lovely even starved by the cancer, and her jokes and the stories of her bizarre exploits reduced me to hysterical tears even secondhand from the family. I loved her fire, the way she railed against her fate while making wry jabs about funeral costs. She played piano, and I loved her hands, her long and elegant fingers, the shapes they made on the keys. She had been studying law, before, and I loved when she mentioned it, the odd state laws she’d memorized for fun, the funny technicalities of the court she liked to talk about.
I loved Melanie. I loved her as much as you could possibly love a person you’ll never meet. I think maybe I loved her more than that. By the time I had watched all the footage they gave me for the third time over, I really wanted to marry her- not just to be married, or to marry into her family, but to be married to her.
We visited her grave a lot. The first time they brought me, they introduced me as her potential husband. I said hello, told her it was nice to meet her and told her I hoped she would like me. I’d brought her flowers- bluebells.
(If I can be honest with you, I was terrified that I was going to get there and Cara was going to see the bouquet and tell me that Melanie had a personal hatred of bluebells, or was super allergic, or thought flowers were stupid. She didn’t. When I showed her and asked her if Melanie would like them, she told me that when Mel was little, she had tried to eat bluebells every time she saw them, because she was absolutely convinced they were the same thing as blueberries.
Then Cara told me she wished I could have been there for the funeral. I could only hug her.)
One night, a few months in, it really hit me that I would never meet Melanie. I would never actually see her, never really get to hear her voice. I’d missed my only chance to meet her on this Earth. Her life had passed mine by, and there was no getting it back.
I spent the next day with Sean. He seemed to know I was grieving. Maybe it was obvious that I’d been crying. Either way, he brought me to the cemetery, and we brought Mel flowers, and sat at her grave, and he spent hours telling me about all the times they’d gotten in trouble together, things her parents still didn’t know about. I cried more, on and off. So did he. We cussed Melanie out together for leaving us, good-naturedly, told her she could’ve at least raised one more hell before she went for Sean to tell me about. It ended up being a pretty nice day.
I met Melanie’s surviving grandparents, her mom’s parents, soon after that. Mary and Liam were dead set against the marriage from the moment they had heard Melanie’s parents intended to find a husband for her post-mortem. They had decided they hated me as soon as they knew I existed. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting them, but I knew I owed it to them to look them in the eye and at least weather their grief. After all, they’d be my grandparents too, someday soon.
So we had dinner together, all five of us. While we ate, Donovan made an obvious effort to keep it light, maybe hoping they’d talk to me and we’d click the same way I’d clicked with him and his wife. I made the effort- I told them about my life, talked about some of the things I’d found in common with the family, we discussed ceramics for a bit.
Nobody brought up Melanie until Mary delicately, deliberately set her fork down and said “So are you a necrophile, then?”
There was an astonishing silence.
It was obviously the worst possible time for sarcasm, so of course, I said “Yes. It’s my defining personality trait, and the only reason I was hired.”
She looked at me levelly. I held my breath.
Liam burst out laughing, high and bright, and while everyone startled my hand flew up to cover my mouth and I found myself mortifyingly close to tears, because now I knew where Melanie had gotten her laugh.
There was an argument, of course, and it lasted a couple hours. It seemed like well-tread ground. Sean and I sat out, neutral and opinion unwanted, and once it was clear they were going to rehash the whole thing he got me a beer and himself a can of soda. I quietly told him the beer tasted like piss, under Mary shouting about the sanctity of Melanie’s memory, and he quietly told me that Donovan had brewed it. I solemnly toasted him and set it down on the table far away from myself, and he laughed.
When they were done, Mary asked me why I wanted to do it, more calmly than I expected.
“I love your family,” I told her. “I don’t have one right now. I want to be part of this one, and if I can help them, I want to. I know it’s weird and a little fucked up and you don’t know me. I’m sorry.”
She pursed her lips. I got the sense I hadn’t convinced her. A week later, Cara called me just about bursting with excitement, because as it turned out, I was wrong. They’d given me their blessing.
We set the date for April.
I was as involved in planning it as anyone else. The only thing I wasn’t allowed to help with was picking out the dress. We consulted records of other ghost marriages, discussed customs, what was right to borrow and what we had to invent ourselves. Cara and I talked incessantly about Irish wedding customs, handfasting and mead and claddagh, bells and coins in shoes.
When I went to get fitted for the suit, Donovan came with me.
He taught me how to tie the tie. He didn’t say anything when I sniffed unattractively in the middle of a fancy-ass store, just put his hand on my shoulder while I wiped my eyes with the handkerchief he handed me.
We invited every family member Mary and Donovan could think of, and despite the extreme clarity in the phone calls and invitations as to the nature of the event, most of them came- some even had kids in tow. I met a baby who’d been named after Melanie. The mother offered to let me hold her. It was terrifying. My hands were shaking so hard I was petrified I was going to drop her.
Nobody had been that interested in trying to bargain out holding a wedding in the graveyard, so we held it in the backyard. The ceremony itself was simple and strange.
Melanie had been wheelchair-bound for most of the last month, so her wedding dress had been neatly arranged over it, sleeves draped on the armrests, skirt flowing over the footrests to brush the grass. A picture of her was positioned on the seat, a pure white bouquet of lilies and roses and baby’s breath in front of it. Donovan pushed it down the aisle. Sean stood to my right, Cara to the left where Melanie would’ve been. Liam had been captain of a vessel in the navy when he was younger, so he was the closest thing to an officiant we felt we needed.
Once the chair was opposite me, Donovan stepped back to stand with his wife, and I knelt.
Liam tied the cord to handfast me to an awkward combination of the picture and the end of the right sleeve. I held tight. The bouquet chimed softly every time Liam brushed it- someone had taken the time and effort to carefully tie a tiny silver bell to the stem of every single one of the flowers.
Cara had asked me to use the Celtic vows. She and Melanie had talked about it, once. There hadn’t been too much discussion of the details of the marriage- by that time Melanie wasn’t fussed about the particulars, and said several times she didn’t mind if they just wheeled her into the nearest courthouse and found a judge who wasn’t busy. The one thing she’d mentioned wanting, though, if she had the option, was those vows.
You are blood of my blood, and bone of my bone.
I give you my body, that we two might be one.
I give you my spirit, `til our life shall be done.
You cannot possess me for I belong to myself
But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give
You cannot command me, for I am free
But I shall serve you in those ways you require
and the honeycomb will taste sweeter coming from my hand.
We used them.
There was no kiss. Mel wasn’t there. When Liam untied me, though, I pressed the end of the sleeve to my mouth.
Just for a moment.
I wheeled Melanie’s chair to the table, sat next to her, and we ate like it was the end of the world. Everyone who drank got absolutely smashed. We danced until our feet hurt, and then until our feet were so sore we hobbled to our chairs and rested them and then danced one more time. Everyone was crying, and everyone was laughing, and the music wasn’t too loud but it was clear and it was ringing and none of us stepped to the beat for shit but it didn’t matter. We were grieving Melanie. We were celebrating her. We were remembering her.
I was remembering her.
My final dance was with Cara. The music had been shut off by then, because it was 3 AM. The guests with kids had left at midnight, and the rest I don’t know when. I was too drunk to notice.
I held her to my chest and we swayed. We had both been crying most of the night, but neither of us cried a single tear for however long we stood there.
“I’m glad it’s you,” she said.
All I could say was “I’m glad it’s me too.”
Finally, she pushed me away. Told me to go to bed. We hadn’t discussed it, but I knew I was welcome and expected to sleep tonight in Melanie’s room.
I laid down in Melanie’s bed. I held a pillow to my chest, and I sobbed, loud and unrestrained and heart-wrenched, until I fell asleep.
When I woke up again, it was… It wasn’t dawn. But it wasn’t dark, either. It was a half light, the kind that comes right before the sun rises or right after it sets. There’s no way I could’ve put a time to it, because I don’t think it was a time. All I know is that I could see what was standing over me.
I don’t want to detail the particulars of what I saw. Not because I think the sight was too gruesome, not because it sickens me to think of for too long, not because I don’t have the words. Just because it makes me so goddamn sad.
She had Melanie’s face.
I knew Melanie’s face intimately. I knew it from the photos, I knew it from the videos. I knew it from Cara and Donovan’s faces, from Sean’s face, from Mary and Liam’s faces, from the gaggle of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and grandkids I had met that very day. And whatever I was looking at was, she had Melanie’s sweet, kind-hearted, heavily freckled face and the body was, I instinctively knew, her corpse.
She wore her wedding gown.
She was rotting.
I sat there and looked at her. I looked at the maggots climbing over and through her flesh. I looked at the clean seam between her untouched face and the neck that was close to halfway gone. I looked at her eyes, clear and unclouded and a brighter, sharper grey than they had been on any screen.
I did not scream.
When she spoke, she had Melanie’s voice. It was the voice that broke my heart, the hoarse one, the one from bad days, where she threw up until her throat was sore and she said her head felt like a plane engine sounded.
“What’s your name?”
Looking back on it now, the strange calmness and detachment that slid over me, the certainty that I was dreaming- I probably dissociated. It’s good I did, because being certain I was dreaming, I thought to myself that it was inspired by the strange, myth-like ceremony I had been a part of that day, the grieving wedding, and gave the question some consideration.
“You’re my wife,” I said, “You already know my name.”
The corpse stilled. Even the maggots ceased to turn. She seemed to be confused for a moment, and then there was a sudden resumption of shuddering and churning, more rapid than before.
“Of course,” she repeated. “It’s yours and mine.”
“Yes,” I assured the shape that may or may not have been my wife, because I didn’t know what else to tell her.
“Say our name,” the thing said.
I took a long time to think, watching the maggots squirm. I guess I’m lucky that she was patient, that she waited for my sleep- and shock-slowed brain to come up with a response that wasn’t just my name.
“Will you say it first?” I asked her. “Please? I love your voice.”
There was a long silence. The thing in the wedding dress looked at me mournfully, as if she didn’t like how I had answered.
“My voice is awful,” she murmured. “It’s hoarse. It’s rough and my throat hurts. The tube… my throat- when they intubated me, when I was seizing- you don’t love this voice.”
As she spoke, she went paler and paler. Her eyes dimmed. A maggot crept over the edge of her face.
I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know how, I have no fucking clue. I sat up in bed and I took the hand hanging by her side. It was the most awful thing. Soft, way too soft, and wet, and sticky, and so cold, and I felt a maggot squirm under my thumb. The maggot was warmer than her.
I was so spaced out I couldn’t process it, didn’t react.
“I love your voice,” I said.
The maggot writhed out from under my thumb, and it sunk into her flesh in the gap left behind.
“Even when it’s hoarse. I heard it hoarse on video a lot. It’s still your voice. I still love it.”
She stared at me, unspeaking, unmoving.
I glanced down at our hands and said “I’m not hurting you, am I? Mel?”
When I looked back up at her, she was looking at me like I had told her she was going to burn her house down with everyone locked inside. Like I had horrified her beyond saying. I started to let go, started to speak.
“Melanie? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
Then everything was dark, I was laying down again and I could hear a slow, steady beep.
My throat was sore as hell, and when I figured out I was awake and could open my eyes, I opened them to a hospital room.
A few soupy moments passed by in near-silence, and then a nurse came rushing in.
There was a lot of commotion. Lots of medical staff asking me what I remembered, how I felt. I told them I had gone to sleep, had a strange dream, and nothing else. Nobody asked what the dream was about except the neurologist. I was evasive, said I couldn’t really remember mostly just because I didn’t want the contents of the dream to get back to my family. I figured it would hurt them more than it would help the neurologist. He took it well enough, didn’t press me.
When my family came, they all came together. Donovan looked like he hadn’t slept for days, and nobody else looked much better. Sean threw his arms around me, ignored Cara telling him to be gentle, and rocked me side to side roughly for a moment. When he drew back, I asked what had happened. I’d been too foggy to ask any staff and didn’t really want to hear it from anyone but family anyway.
Donovan and Sean glanced uncomfortably at each other. It was Cara who told me.
“You had a seizure.”
“A seizure?” I felt like my thoughts were dragging through mud. I knew what she was saying was significant, but I couldn’t put it together.
“You were in status epilepticus for twenty eight minutes.”
I understood all at once, very numbly.
Sean softly added, “Your hand got hurt, too. The doctors think, uh… you maybe got a cut, somehow, and it got infected. You had, uh. It was- not so good. But it’ll be okay now, they said.”
Both my hands felt very distant and strange, so I had to look down to see which one was injured. The right had an IV attached. The left was bandaged.
I’d held Melanie’s hand with my left.
I’d been handfasted to her with my left.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Three days,” Cara said.
I meant to ask if anyone had contacted my work, if they were okay, how they’d been holding up, what procedures the doctors had done, what they thought had happened to me.
Instead, all I could say was “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
This time, Cara embraced me.
It turns out it takes time to recover from almost dying, especially when it includes a three-day coma and the mysterious death of a chunk of flesh on your hand.
The doctors told me over and over that they couldn’t understand how the gangrene could have advanced so far without anyone noticing it. I shouldn’t have been able to function. It was weeks and weeks’ worth of damage. My palm and the undersides of my fingers had been blackened and withered with it.
Sean, at one point, cheerfully told me that part of the treatment had involved maggots. They had put them on my hand and they had removed the dead flesh without disturbing what was still alive.
I didn’t know how I felt about it, but I must’ve looked less than excited, because he changed the subject very quickly.
In the end, when I realized how bad it’d been, I had just been relieved to still have it attached. The function was massively reduced, and I had to do pretty extensive physical therapy to get as much back as I did. I could just about hold a mug and hook my fingers around stuff. It took some effort to get my typing back up to a reasonable speed for programming, but I was ridiculously fast before, so it wasn’t an impossible task to adjust. I’m lucky I’m right-handed, though.
I had just moved on to working on a little fine motor when it happened again.
My family had asked me to move in, after. They were up front about it- if I had another seizure like that alone in my apartment, I could die. They weren’t wrong, and I’d about had it with living alone anyway, so the guest room next to Melanie’s became my room.
The reprieve lasted a month. I’d written it all off, by then, the seizure and the dream both, as a byproduct of drinking far too much and having some kind of terrible hidden infection, compounded by an extremely emotional event. I’d gone through the hospital wringer, every test they could think of, and it’d all come clean once I was recovered from what had put me there to begin with. So there was no reason why, sober and healthy and feeling melancholy, I couldn’t curl up in Melanie’s bed instead of mine one night.
When I woke up in the half-light again, I knew I’d fucked up.
I looked at my wife. She looked worse, this time, and I struggled to place how for a moment before realizing that the first time, she had looked impassive, even determined, until I had upset her at the end. Now she looked disturbed. Troubled, somehow.
“Melanie?” I said.
She shook her head.
“... You aren’t Melanie?” I ventured, and she shook her head again, and sighed.
“I am. I’m Melanie. I’m… I’m your wife.”
Her voice was just as hoarse. It sent a pang through me, and before I could think better, I asked her, “Does your throat still hurt?”
A cascade of maggots rained down her body as she clenched her jaw and fists and shook her head, violently. Not in denial, but in frustration.
“Yes,” she grit out, and her voice was clearer now, somehow, coming through her teeth, louder. “Yes, it fucking hurts.”
“Is there some way- is there anything I can do?”
At first, she shook her head again. Then she sighed, long and crackling, and made eye contact with me. When she spoke again, her voice was abruptly as healthy as it’d ever sounded in any of the videos. “You can tell me your name. Then you’ll die, and I get to come back in your place.”
For a moment, I didn’t know what to think at all.
Then I thought about thirty things at once- I don’t want to die, I would die for my family to be happy, maybe this is why I’m here at all, what if it’s a trick, if she comes back will she come back whole, will she be happy, what does she want, is she suffering here, will I suffer here, will we switch places, will she take my body?
“You’re left-handed,” I blurted out, instead of any of that.
“What,” she responded, clearly baffled.
“When we handfa- when I handfast- when we handfasted, I did it with my left hand. Because you were- you’re left handed.”
“Is this some kind of trauma response?” Melanie asked. I don’t think she was asking me.
“Do you want to come back?” I asked, and then flinched at myself.
She opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again to say “Yes.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. I- can I think about it for a minute?”
The expression on her face was one I hadn’t seen in any photos or video: complete incredulous disbelief. “Can you think about it?”
“I know,” I said hastily, “I know, it’s not like you got to think about it-”
“No!” This was a face I had seen, a voice I had heard. It’d been aimed at the cancer, mostly. Melanie was pissed.
“Why the fuck do you have to be good? Why can’t you just be fucking taking advantage of my grieving family- fuck, you’re so nice. You took my hand, you- you didn’t even flinch- you were scared that you hurt me, and I hurt you- you dumb son of a bitch, you don’t know me, you can’t fucking talk about killing yourself to save me like it’s a- a car purchase! Can you think about it?!”
Maggots flew everywhere as she gestured furiously. You already know what a weirdo I am, so I’m not gonna lie to you. In that moment, the only thing I could think was I’m so glad I married you.
“Mel,” I said, and she stopped and stared at me, brows furrowed, chest heaving.
I wanted to reach out and hold her hand again. I don’t know what I would have expected, had I considered it, but the hand that had been damaged was the same here as in real life, stiff and strange and scarred. Melanie looked at it too, and her face tightened, pained. After a moment of thought, I reached out and touched the edge of the mattress, as close to where she stood as I dared.
“Melanie, I’m a huge asshole who does programming work for Google. The past year has been the only part of my life that was worth anything, and it was only worth anything because it was for you and your family. You didn’t get to choose. I’d get that luxury. You were going to be a lawyer. You’re brilliant, you’re focused, you could do real good in the world. And- I mean- I just-”
My voice broke. Melanie’s fingers fluttered briefly and helplessly at her side before she stilled them, glancing down at my hand again.
“I do love you,” I said, soft, “I know I don’t really know you. But more than that, I love and know our family. I could give them back their daughter. I’m not suicidal, but I could give them back their daughter. I got this year. They wouldn’t miss me like they miss you.”
There was a suspended moment of silence. Melanie closed her eyes. She mouthed a noiseless no, but I couldn’t have said whether it was one kind of denial or the other.
When there was nothing further, I ventured to ask “What’s it like?”
“It’s like… being asleep,” she murmured. Her eyes fluttered visibly under their lids. “I dream. They’re pretty good dreams. I dreamed about this. That’s why I knew what to do.”
“Did… do you dream about us? About the living?”
“Did you dream about our wedding?”
Her reply was very quiet. “ … Only a little. I wasn’t trying, I didn’t want to see. I wish I could have seen more. … I wish I could have been there.”
“We used the Celtic vows.”
Melanie glanced up at me, cracked lips parted a little, and her brows creased just the slightest bit. Not quite an expression.
“‘I give you my body’,” I quoted, and it broke into much more visible pain.
“‘While we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give-’”
“Stop! I don’t, shut up, stop- Fuck, don’t. Don’t. I don’t.”
I stopped. Melanie put a shaking hand to her mouth, ran it over her head. The worms she dislodged, I noticed for the first time, burst into little clouds of dust as soon as they hit the hardwood.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “I can’t. I couldn’t live with myself. It was different before. When I dreamed about how it would happen, I thought… it was selfish. I thought it was whatever caretaker or god is in charge of this shit telling me that they had made a mistake, and I thought you were a shitty person taking advantage of my family. I thought they were paying you or something. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I tried not to dream of you. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to find out what kind of person I would be- be killing. Replacing.”
“I’m willing,” I said, and she made eye contact and replied “I’m not.”
I’d started crying at some point, but hadn’t noticed, didn’t until Melanie reached out a little towards my face, then grabbed the tissue box off the bedside table and put it down on the blanket next to me. It made me laugh, shaky and tearful, and I wiped my eyes with my sleeve before I took a tissue.
“It isn’t fair,” I said. “It isn’t fair.”
“No,” Melanie murmured, “It isn’t. None of it is. But we have to make do with what we can.”
“I love you,” I told her again, helpless. She smiled at me, and it was sad but it was fierce and determined.
“It’s okay. I’ll just go back to sleep, and I’ll dream of you, and my family will be okay. You’ll make sure they’re okay.”
“I will,” I promised.
Melanie hesitated briefly, then said “Do you think your first name is safe? The dream specified ‘full name’, but-”
“I’m willing to take the risk,” I said wryly, and Melanie wrinkled her nose at me. I took a deep breath. “Hi, Mel. I’m your husband, Benen.”
We both braced, but nothing happened, and after a stressful few seconds we both burst into relieved, nervous laughter at the same time.
“Benen, huh? That’s one I haven’t heard before.”
“It means, uh, ‘mild’. Like fucking salsa. Found that out after I changed it and it was too late, obviously. Most people call me Ben, anyway.”
This time, her smile was warm and genuine. “It’s nice to meet you, Ben.”
I beamed back, reflexive, and Melanie laughed.
“So what now?” I asked, and she shrugged.
“I go back to sleep.”
“Would you- I mean, can I… Would you want to lie down with me? The one time?”
Melanie hesitated, clearly torn, and I added “I don’t care if you hurt me. It- my hand wasn’t really that bad.”
After an immediate shake of the head, she reconsidered, sighed, and lowered herself to curl up on the bed next to me awkwardly, painfully, like her withered muscles and the holes in her flesh had started to matter, now, at the end. Gingerly, carefully, she laid her head just on the edge of my lap, her skull feeling strangely bare and fragile against my thigh even through my sweatpants.
I laid my hand, my left, on the side of her face. The base of my palm rested on cold, wet rot. I didn’t care. My thumb stroked slow arcs across her cheekbone, prominent and sharp, the intact skin dry and rough and over-hot.
“Goodnight, Ben,” she whispered.
I told her that I loved her. I told her to sleep well.
The doctors ended up taking the hand off at the wrist, in the end, and I’m never going to walk without a limp. I don’t care. It’s a price I paid gladly, and I would pay it a thousand times over again if I had to. In the beginning I regretted the loss of the hand that was fasted to Melanie, but I figure it went to her, anyway, so it’s alright.
I never saw her again, no matter how many times I slept in her bed. For our fifth anniversary, Cara and Donovan- with my and Sean’s permission- finally remodeled her room, made it a master for us. My old bedroom became a guest again.
I do dream about her, but they’re just dreams.
I rest easy knowing she’s dreaming of me too.
Liam passed away last month. Liver failure. Even though everyone else is just as practical as I am about the grief, I feel oddly guilty about the lack of pain his loss brought me. There’s the natural ache of knowing I’ll never hear that laugh again, never tell him I don’t want to hear his goddamn deep sea fishing stories and hear them anyway again, but there’s no uncertainty, no fear of the unknown on his behalf. I know he’s resting. I know he’s at peace. I know he’s going to get to see Melanie again, in the dreams.
Someday, I’ll see her again too. I won’t rush it. I love my life- I love my family. I don’t want to make them grieve another child, another sibling. I’ll live well, for as long as I can, and when I go I won’t be afraid.
When I see her again, I’ll finally get to tell Melanie our last name.
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