They say that ghosts can slip through walls, but we can’t. We don’t know if it is something special about us, and by “special,” we mean the opposite, of course—some further way we can’t do what others take for granted: couldn’t polish silverware until it was so bright we could see our upside-down faces in the bowls of spoons; couldn’t embroider blue forget-me-nots on the corners of our husband’s handkerchiefs. We have wondered, more than once, if our ineptitudes, these small defects, are why we died: if we were better wives, more capable, he might have spared us.
Of course we know it was his fault, not ours—we remind ourselves that, every day, when one of us forgets, when one of us wrings her white-smoke hands. We hush her, we remind her that he is the sadist, the psychopath, the one who has issues with women; him alone the one to blame.
(Yet: we all did disobey him. That’s what we have in common, besides the bad luck of marrying a monster: we all promised never to use the key, and we all broke that promise. The moment the key turned in the lock, even before each of us dropped it and had to pick it up from the sticky floor, slick with blood, we felt not just horror but guilt).
“His fault, his fault,” we remind each other every day, when one or the other us wails “Why? Why did I come here, why did I turn the key?” But we have all been socialized, as young women, to blame ourselves. If someone looked our way with greedy eyes, it was our fault, for undoing the top buttons of our blouses; our mothers taught us that, their mothers taught them, and unlike our embroidery and dancing and silver-polishing, that is a lesson we have perfectly learnt.
We suspect that our disobedience is why we are stuck, forever, inside this room, with its sticky floor, its bloody hooks. Why we hover perpetually over our own dead bodies, which we try to caress, sometimes, stroking our own faces that less and less resemble our faces. But of course our fingertips can feel nothing, any more than steam from hot coffee can feel lips.
We cannot leave this basement room, because we entered it. We broke our vow, he reminded us, though we didn’t see disappointment in his eyes, only triumph.
We cannot leave this room, with its slick stones and gas lanterns, always lit, their strange blue flame making us (vapor-us but also flesh-us, lying on the stone floor) likewise blue.
But we can hear through the walls: we hear so perfectly. We hear the servants polishing the silver upstairs, the squeak of cloth over the forks’ tines; we hear the pour of wine; we hear every time he brings a new bride into the castle. We hear the whine of bed springs. We hear sounds so soft that as humans we doubt we could have heard them, like the swish of the dressing gown she (the new one) unbelts, which slides to the bedchamber carpet in a silky pool. We hear the clank of the key ring he gives her, we hear him whisper, “But never use that small brass key. Promise me.” We hear her promise, and we remember our own demure promises, the way we looked down, shy maidens, though no longer maidens, and then looked up to see him gazing into our eyes.
What was he looking for? Some authentically obedient wife, at last?
We try to steer away from this line of thinking—that’s what will make us buckle to the floor and say “Why?” again, “Why did I turn the key?” And we will have to remind ourselves, once again: his fault, his fault. “Come, come,” we soothe each other. We try to avoid these negative mental grooves, but in this room, they always return. They are like the closed door at the end of a long, stone corridor.
We hear her upstairs, we hear her kiss him goodbye, we hear the clank of the keys in her pocket, we hear her handle them, like worry beads. She fingers the brass one. We cannot project our voices, but we project our thoughts: “Don’t come! Don’t come!” we shriek at her. Yet we know that she will hear only the last word, just as we did; that her head will tilt, reflecting; that she, like us, will come.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Colorado Review, Craft Literary, Forge, The Gettysburg Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
Photography by Joshua Bartell