Gingerbread House Lit Mag

The Closing Doors

He was a king. Too often do many fail to remember so. He was a king that liked to be entertained, one that enjoyed the company of colourful lords and ladies. He would wander the halls of their estates, stroking his beard, so black it looked blue, asking their owners about the ghosts that walked alongside them. For many reasons, he was drawn to the daughter of his neighbour in the hills of Great Brittany. Her name was Tryphine. Her sisters were enamored by the mysterious fog that was he, but so was she.

At dinners, she would speak out of turn to capture his attention. It would gall her father but make their guest smile, as her sisters tittered under their pearl gloves, in jealousy or admitted defeat.

To make a king laugh is to bless his nation, he would say, but no one truly believed that he was a king, not even the girl. He dressed like royalty, but rode in on his own horse. His hands dripped with silver, but no servants followed at his heels. He could’ve been a successful swindler, a vain merchant, but he was known to be an honest man. By then, they were in love.

So it did not matter.

She would steal away to his manor at night, astride the sun-bleached mare he gifted her. He would present his riches to her at midnight, drape her in the finest jewels until sunrise. In the empty rooms, devoid of souls, she would ask him about the portraits that adorned the walls. There was a beautiful woman in each of them, the same velvet-skinned countess that refused to age.

My mother, he would lie.

She trusted him, though they looked nothing alike. She fingered the emeralds lain upon her neck as she stared up at their painted twin, glowing at the hollow of a dead woman’s throat.

They married on summer’s eve. He took her to another manor of his name, greater and grander than the one situated by her childhood home. There she had everything she needed. He loved her well. He never left her side. Every night, he would hold her in his arms and trace the words of all the stories he told on her skin. And she would always ask for more.

Her only restriction was that she could not enter the ballroom. Even with its lack of a locking mechanism, the gilded doors would not budge. Here is where you must not go, he told her. This is the one story I will not tell you.

The rest were more than enough. She became full of his tales, she loved them as much as the mouth that spoke them. Despite the sole company of her lord husband and the wind in the halls, she decided to be happy. Loneliness yawned inside her chest, called out for her brothers and sisters and mother and father, but still—she had to be happy. She was with child.

But as her stomach swelled with life, so it did with hunger for the doors of temptation. They haunted her. Though every other door in the castle was dusty with the past, the ballroom entrance remained untouched. It glowed sometimes, and when the lady of the manor walked the halls at night without her dose of slumber, she would question if she had fallen into a dream. It was a furnace with flames outstretched, and her, its wanting moth. When she was sure she was dreaming, she would command her mind to summon the image of their child, dancing on the glistening marble of that secret ballroom.

With her aching for that future, came a torrent of tears. Sorrow and confusion made her listless. She would stare at the walls, motionless, as if ghosts had caught her in place. Her husband no longer touched her. He no longer gave her his stories. He began to flicker in and out of the halls, disappearing for days at a time.

The doors still called. She wrote to her mother and father, her brothers and sisters. She lamented the time that had passed without the presence of her kin, and she invited them to her home, to fill the hollow halls with their long-forgotten laughter.

Come, she wrote, again and again, for one day her spectral husband did not return. Only the dutiful raven that perched upon the balustrade stayed, with its small head constantly cocked at the sight of her tear-stained letters. She could no longer walk with the child rearing into near escape. Pain coursed through the hours without interruption, so much so, that light became dark and dark became everything, as the child wailed from within. At times, she would feel the shape of objects around her—the plush slopes of a pillow, the hard edges of her desk. But she could not see.

When the crying finally stopped, she saw the sole outline of her lord husband, cast in white light amidst dark blue—the midnight lure of the moon.

My love, he said. He held out his hand. She took it and brought it to her lips—the warmth and taste of them, nothing but real. The hand led her to the ballroom doors as the rest of her husband drew in and out of existence, like a lapping shore of shadows was washing over his body. His quiet whispers accompanied each step she took, dragging her feet forward, urging her farther until she reached the glowing doors.

When she pressed her palm upon the surface, it came away red. When she pushed the door, it gave and parted two ways, three, more—a prism of light, shattering to make way for its mistress.

There, in the center of the room, he was. Around him stood many women and men, decked in the finest gowns and suits, prettied by their soft faces and eager smiles. And he was waiting for her. His open hand, asking for a dance.

She took it and the room immediately began to spin with song and spirit. Strings plucked like the laughter that escaped their guests, and they wrapped around her in soft melodies. Her husband leaned forward to kiss her, and in his grasp she felt out of breath, all of sudden, seized by more than his two hands.

She opened her eyes and saw. All of  his stories, laid out in life, encircling them on the marble. The red-haired maiden with locks that fell like evening sunbeams, the inky-eyed sheika with lips as full as violet plums. The woman who was not his mother, and her pale, emerald-lined throat. They all gazed upon her with pity and hopelessness. Decayed beyond repair.

When she dragged her eyes away from the storybook of a room, she found her husband twisting a dagger in her chest. No, she gasped, no. He dug it in deeper. Behind him, the swinging corpses of his wives turned in the air like pages on a spine. Each with their own scarlet split between their breasts.

Do you love me? she asked, choking on blood and tears. More than you did them?

His hands stilled, the steel ceased its plunging. His lips parted and at once, she remembered why she had first fallen for him, in the dim glow of candlelight and the fragrance of thyme.

When the shadows of her brothers eclipsed her lord husband, their swords struck one by one. He was hacked into pieces in front of his trembling wife, and when her brothers tired of their vengeance, satisfied in their slaughter, he craned up his neck with what little bones he had left. He took her by the hair and put his lips to her ear. Listen to me, he said. His voice was not a voice.

Then he died on her lap. She cried out, and the bodies of his rotted wives and their swollen bellies swayed with her mourning song.

It was a night birth. The child entered the world, blessed by the fingers of moonlight, silent as a grey stone. The wisps of his hair, so black they looked blue.

She thought of his father, a man that took as he did, greedy and unforgiving. She thought of his stories, the ones he left as an inheritance, of her son’s brothers and sisters and the many mothers he could’ve had. She thought of the ballroom where her son would one day dance, the crown he was destined to bear, and the great love that preceded his birth, between a young girl and her father’s guest.

Her Conomor had left as much as he took. Still, in the haziest of nights, she felt his lips by her ear, caressing her with words of comfort and promises of eternal devotion.

So Tryphine listened. She raised their son and loved him well. And sometimes, the scar on her chest would call to him, like the glowing gates of a forbidden graveyard, the ghost of a voice stirring within.

 Lois L. K. Chan

Lois L. K. Chan is a Chinese-Canadian writer studying at the University of British Columbia. Her work is featured in Soft Star Mag, Yuzu Press, and Chinchilla Lit. You can find her on Twitter @loislkchan.

Artwork: Gustav Adolf Mossa, Waltz of Death, 1906 Public Domain

This entry was published on October 31, 2022 at 12:09 am and is filed under 53 (October 2022), Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
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