FROSTBITE

The sun shines like polished gold: still bright, but tarnishing around the edges, with the certainty that it will fade until no light remains. Late-season hydrangeas struggle to preserve their stately white blooms but they are browning around the edges. Maple leaves that recently blazed red now darken and dry on the ground, like the exposed hearts of small creatures.

The breeze is cooler by the minute and carries away the last gasps of sacred summer, leaving no defense against gloom. Leaves litter the long drive, disrupted by no horse or foot traffic. One not paying heed could veer off the lane and find themselves shivering in the growing darkness.

Outside the reaches of the waning sun is the mansion. It hunches there, cracked and peeling, moldering, moss-covered, soot-stained. Its once-stately columns lean at odd angles, too close together, like prison bars. The house looks like it may have poked up from the earth itself and stands aloof, chastised, shamed. The perfect backdrop for sin. Sunlight slips into twilight.

Closer to the house, birdsong bursts forth and dies off abruptly, as if the air itself cannot tolerate any outside presence. The atmosphere thins and one would find it hard to breathe now. Closer still, blooms lose their heavy scents and die, leaves refuse to hang on the trees. A long fissure cuts the bare lawn in two, running straight to the front door. There the sun disappears completely, gives way to this place of perpetual darkness: the absence of light, the presence of evil.

Flora lies inside. They have placed her on a bare wooden slab. It is not sacred enough to be considered an altar; she is not dead enough to use it as a pyre. She is elevated so her gown flows to the ground, where it puddles like cold autumn rain. She is a beautiful, albeit haunted, figure dressed in silver and gold but she cannot shine in this twilight place. There is nothing illuminated that could reflect from her fabric or beauty.

She cannot move her body, just her eyes. She looks straight up. Spectral guards hang there, looking like spider and web rolled into one creature – leggy, airy things that blink at her. Below them, there is a singed staircase that goes nowhere. She wishes she could climb it and plummet to her death. She wouldn’t hesitate to step off. But therein lies the problem. He won’t let her die.

Her sleeves have small slits cut into them as does her flesh, to allow the clumsy insertion of clear tubing. Blood drips slowly down the tube from one arm into a crock placed on the floor. They may drink her blood, she doesn’t know, but that is not the purpose. The purpose is to make her into something she is not.

Because he won’t let her live, either. Not as herself, anyway. With each warm drop that leaves her body, a tube in her other arm pumps in something cold and biting. She feels more lifeless by the minute, feels her mind go fuzzy around the edges. Memory and the gravity of her present situation lose their crispness and urgency.

Pockets of hot and cold air wash over her. Fingers dent her skin but there is no one there. Water drips. Whiffs of old, cold smoke clog her nostrils. There are no interior walls, no rooms, nothing to hold the structure together, yet it stands. Sometimes a door slams. There is no glass in the windows, just gaping black holes, but no fresh air comes in nor stale air out. The spirit of the house has left, as if an exorcism has gone awry and taken the soul but left behind the demon.

Above her is a jagged, charred hole, open to the outside, where the sky is always black as midnight, though no stars dare shine there. Late in the day, no golden light will bleed onto the dull wooden floor through the western windows. No natural shadows will fall upon the peeling, blackened wallpaper. No dust motes will be suspended in amber somber. The light inside never changes. It is always just on the side of darkness where one can see, but cannot see well, cannot distinguish what is fantasy from what is horrible reality.

She entered the house willingly, she bitterly recalls that much. Time existed then, as did light, air, love. The invitation arrived out of nowhere; it was suddenly there in her room. The thought of his being back from the war and still pursuing her had filled her with giddy madness and she could think of nothing else. Anticipation firmly quashed caution and she didn’t even consider declining the odd summons. Her father and brothers couldn’t forbid her attending alone. They were dead, crushed into the dirt under Sherman’s army. Her mother shook out the best gown she could scavenge, laced it as tightly as her weak fingers allowed, and told her daughter to not return unless it was as the soon-to-be Mrs. Bartholomew Carrington.

The mansion had looked respectable enough when his carriage had borne her to it. The house looked surprisingly good, in fact, compared to the ruins en route. Though it suffered what looked like smoke damage, it had been complete when she looked at it from outside. Or so she thought. She can’t quite remember. When was it that she arrived? Perhaps time did not actually still exist then. She thinks now that the edges of the house were blurred and wavy, like a mirage, maybe floating, ever so slightly.

She had hurried up the path, head down, eyes on the treacherous dead branches that littered the frosty lawn, as the wind swept leaves against her ankles in the darkness. She’d rushed to the front door to escape the sudden and unusually intense chill and the feeling that something untoward lurked just out of sight. She’d thought she would be safe indoors, with him.

The door opened on its own. There was no ball, no other guests. Bartholomew Carrington waited, standing alone, like a column of smoke. Right away, she could tell he was not the same boy who had left his beloved to fight the Yankees. He was darker than a person should be, appearing mist like, soft, blurred, with moving edges, like a cloud of gnats. She almost smiled at the ingenuity of this mysterious party trick. Almost. But when she looked up through her lashes at his face, a cold shiver of fear swept over her. She sensed something was badly off, and wanted to run, but she could not. Her body lost its life force and seemed to root itself in place.  

“Flora, my love. You came. But of course you did.” His words dissolved and were replaced by screeches that echoed into silence. The room spun. The candles extinguished themselves and vanished, leaving their smoke to choke her. She was bound, not by any tethers, but by his mind.

She found herself mute, and had thought, Bartholomew, sir, what has become of you? You practice the dark arts.

He had answered her in her own mind. Certainly not, my dear. I am no magician. I am from a place well beyond the need of magic. He smiled and spread his hands, humble or threatening, she couldn’t be sure. His skin was ashen, barely showing in the darkness that surrounded him. Did he hover? She knew then that she must learn to question everything and not rely on her senses.

*****

She listens now to his servants, his dark, rat-faced ghouls, scurrying in the corners like the vermin they are. They prepare for his return.

She smells him first, sweet and dull and heavy like rot, black and red like oak moss and wet embers. Next come the bugs. Gnats and flies precede him and alight on her. She hears him descend the staircase, the one attached to nothing, as if the house is still intact and he makes his grand entrance. An enormous black cat pads along next to him, shifting, wavy. From the corner of her eye, he looks as large as a panther, with sinister yellow eyes, mere slits for pupils. She hears the cat’s claws clicking, sharp and strong, hears him lick his tight, black lips.

The floor creaks as Bartholomew approaches, though she doesn’t hear his heels strike the hardwood. Deranged gentleman, lunatic, phantom: whatever monster he is, his feet don’t make any sound when he moves. He glides, noiseless, elegant, horrible. The cat crouches nearby, tail rolling back and forth like a snake.

Too soon, Bartholomew is beside her, dressed in his finery. He gazes down at her. “You look just the same. The war hasn’t touched your beauty. How easy it must have been for you, to stay here, to move on without me.” His smile is sardonic.

Every day was agony, she thinks to him. How could I go on, with my beloved, my betrothed out there, fighting, who knows where? I had no word about what was happening. I don’t know who you are, but I died the day my Bartholomew rode away.

“I am your beloved Bartholomew. Just in another form.”

Another form? She sees his words float around her like falling leaves, but she cannot quite grasp them.

“Must I spell it out, darling? I didn’t survive the war. I didn’t come back alive. But I came back.”

Slowly, savoring the moment, he extends a hand to touch her, to caress her face. His black, satin-edged sleeve slides on a muscled arm but no bodily warmth issues from within. One cold finger slides up and across her cheek, down her nose, over her mouth. His mouth turns down in disappointment when she gags.

“Flora, Flora. My love,” he coos, in a voice one would use to sooth a child, that would only confirm for her the truth of her nightmares. “Don’t you understand, we are finally together. For all eternity.” He frowns in thought. “It will take some getting used to, but with the system I’ve devised, soon you too will be free from the horrors of this world. In the meantime, we can live very happily together.”

He removes his hand from her face, checks the blood spigot in her arm, adjusts it.

“Fools.” His voice rises in anger. “They are draining too much life out of you.” He softens, turns to her. “We can’t have that.” Again the finger on her skin, the sad smile. “Ah, I should not blame them, these hired idiots. It is a very intricate, experimental system.”

At her confused look, he sighs, then continues. “Do try to pay attention, darling. You must remember how I was to be a doctor before the accursed war came and ruined everything. After we wed, I was to start my practice.” He trails off and looks away. “Well. That was not meant to be, was it. And yet, the idea of what could have been haunts me. I couldn’t leave you and that promised life, not after a lifetime of being betrothed and working toward it. We are meant to be together, and have been since infancy. The bond was too strong. So I returned here and started working on a solution post-haste.”

A solution? To death? Despite her fear, Flora’s thoughts reach him clearly.

“In short, yes. True, the first attempts killed several young women outright, but I am quite close to discovering how to make the human body immortal. Once I perfect that, you will live forever, and we will finally be together. Always.” He speaks casually, conversationally, tenting his fingers in thought.

Sir, you are mad!

“Perhaps.” He leans in closer to check her pulse but she cannot see his face clearly. “But think of it!” He leans back suddenly, overcome with the joy that comes with hope. “We will live out the lives that were meant for us. Together, in perfect peace and bliss. No war, no suffering, no death.” He scoots a chair and rests close to her, hands casually idle on her waist, lost in his fantasies.

Flora’s eyes struggle to focus on him and are drawn to an object around his neck. Tucked beneath his black vest of velvet brocade is a chain. On it are bones of alternating length: long, short, long, short. Finger, toe, finger, toe. She tries to turn her head away and cannot. Her eyes roll back, like those of a horse headed to slaughter.

He responds to her unspoken thoughts. “This?” He runs his fingers across his ghastly necklace. “This is a reminder of my mistakes. One from each failure. Yes, there have been several. Like I said, it is all very experimental. One must expect it to take time to achieve success in achieving immortality. But I’ve brought you here now because I can wait no longer to have you. I am quite certain of success this time.”

She thinks, Sir, you mistreat me.

“Sweetheart, please, you know my name. What do you mean mistreat you?” He answers aloud, surprised by her thought. “Darling, I give you the greatest gift one could ever dream of. Eternal life.” He motions to the fluid dripping into her, replacing the blood that should run through her veins.

If this is how I must live, I would rather die.

“You know not of what you speak. As usual, you sound like a dolt. What do you know of death? Of untimely, violent death? Ignorant fool!” He shouts at her. His hands fly to his face. “Speak to me when you’ve experienced your family burned alive in their beds by Yankee dogs, when you’ve survived months of the miserable war just to take a blade in the gut, to watch your promising life destroyed, your beloved mistrustful and hateful toward you. It is nothing short of hell.” The last is uttered in a terrible, growled whisper. “Believe me when I tell you I am giving you the greatest gift, that of escaping death.”

Truly, sir, I would prefer death to … this.

He glares at her, and says through gritted teeth, “As I said, it is the greatest gift. Can’t you be appreciative of my generosity, for once? Nothing was ever good enough for you. I offer you life everlasting. Life! Trust me, ignorant girl. I know what is best for you.”

She closes her eyes against this new anger, because it is all she can do. She tries in vain to turn her head away from him. You’ve changed.

“War will do that to a person. Like I said, I’ve been through hell.” He sighs and recovers his genial manner. “Besides, you don’t have a choice.” He says it without concern and rubs his hands together, as if he can warm them. “Now let’s get you cleaned up. You don’t look good.”

He snaps his fingers, the sound of dry twigs cracking. A sharp-nosed servant appears with a bone-handled hair brush. The whiskered peon lingers, stands on his toes and leers at her.

“Away!” Bartholomew yells, and the underling drifts away under the squinting glare of the cat.

His cold hands release her hair from its pins easily. She feels the chill through to her bones. Her hair cascades toward the floor and he begins to brush, each stroke cold and quick, like ice sliding off a roof. With each pass, the hair before her eyes fades a little toward white.

He smiles, as one would when preparing for a celebration. “Tonight, my love, we shall celebrate our sacred union.”

If it is the same night she arrived, a year hence, or a hundred, she doesn’t know. But she is sure there is nothing holy going on here.

He digs through her hair and she feels the dry scrape of his fingers inching back and forth on her scalp as if he were playing an organ. He piles her hair up so it hangs like Spanish moss around her face and secures it with a large scarab. The beetle wraps its sharp, prickly claws around the strands of hair. “Now, let’s see about your dress.”

Again she tries to struggle and can move only her eyes. Against her will, her thoughts go to his hands on her exposed body.

“Please do not worry,” he says. “Of course I respect your modesty.” Gently, he closes the blood spigot and unhooks the tubes running in and out of her body. He snaps his brittle fingers again and a toothless hag appears. Bartholomew exits to the shadows. The cat stays, narrows his sulfur eyes and exposes his claws.

The hag brings a dress. She begins to remove the gown of gold and exchange it for one of black velvet. Inch by inch, heavy, prickly midnight-colored fabric replaces golden silk on Flora’s body until the last bit of color and light is gone. Now it is just shadow and deeper shadow.

Flora tries to use her eyes to convey to the old woman her fear, to plead for help. The woman, gnarled and ancient and perhaps insane, ignores her and hums while she works. The old hag shifts Flora onto her side and works surprisingly nimbly at a long row of buttons running up the back of the gown.

When the ancient one is done she places the young woman again on her back, arranges her hands on her stomach like a corpse in a coffin, and scuttles away, cackling.

Bartholomew returns with a wooden jewelry box, the top of which is mother-of-pearl inlay in the shape of a skull. He opens it, lifts her hands, and places rings on her fingers. Blood red rubies drip down her knuckles and pool into bracelets around her wrists. Spiders wrap hairy legs around her fingers and bow their tiny heads until they rest against warm flesh. He hooks his finger in the low neck of her gown and tugs, exposing more flesh above her bosom. He traces the shape of a necklace there. The flies regroup, making a buzzing chain around her neck. He dabs perfume behind her ears as she draws in her breath in aversion to the scent of ancient rose dust and ash. Finally, he places a bouquet of dried roses in her hand. They are in a small vase of finger bones and she feels the knuckles when she clutches it. Then he steps back and sighs at the beauty of his handiwork.

He takes up her hand in his cold, meaty one and, involuntarily, her warm flesh grasps back. He lifts her and pulls her to her feet to lean her body against his own. She is enveloped in his cold black mist, that presence around him that she has begun to identify as the tangible representation of evil. It is very much like leaning into a bare, ice-coated tree that will never leaf out again. She begins to shake as music starts to play. It is unlike anything she has heard before, a low, terrifying thrumming made of squeaks and clicks. She raises her eyes. Bats. Her teeth knock together.

“Ah,” he says. “Of course, where are my manners. You are chill.” He snaps his fingers and flames spring to life inside the empty window frames. She is surrounded by small squares of fire, as cold and useless as God in this hell. Bartholomew startles and shies away from the flame.

His arms encircle her and he lowers his head to her shoulder. “Flora,” he whispers. “My love.”

She smells blood – spoiled and devoid of life – and feels a wet coldness where his belly gash oozes into her gown. She leans there, against him, as he sways and moves her around the sooty floor, dimly lit by the flames, a cacophony of bat sound in her ears, until from sheer terror her body finally gives out and she becomes one with the darkness.

*****

 

She recites her story relentlessly from within the insane asylum where he’s put her. She persists, and insists upon the truth of it. They tell her it’s all in her mind.

“How can you not remember, you stupid girl. A kindly acquaintance brought you here for your own safety. You were hysterical. You should be grateful.” They try to convince her.

The pinkie finger of her left hand is gone. “He failed,” Flora whispers on those days that she can find lucidity and her own voice. “His experiment failed.” She could not open her eyes by that point, but she felt the dull, pulling, gnawing of the serrated knife as he hacked away at her for what seemed an undue length of time to separate that one small digit. She doesn’t feel pain now; she doesn’t feel a thing. Occasionally, she smells the blood that has soaked through a rough bandage around her hand. No one seems particularly interested in the origin or sanitation of the wound.

“Bah. He saved you. You should know by now that the most dangerous place in the world is within a woman’s mind.”

They will not believe he is no friend of hers. They bleed her, apply leeches, dunk her in hot, then cold, water. They scold, yell, blame her. It was all in my mind, she sputters, half-drowned. She looks down at the space on her left hand where the little finger should be. Proof, she says. Frostbite, they answer. You really should be more careful. She lies on her back while flies buzz and rats scurry in that dark and filthy institution. She lies there and smell things rotting.

Once a day the doctor comes, touches her face, sometimes a breast, sometimes more. He smiles sadly and says she used to be a real beauty, he can tell. She must have done something to  turn her hair as white and wild as December, to render her occasionally mute, to destroy her spirit. He raises the sheet and looks under, comments nonchalantly that the deep scars make her arms look like tree bark. What a shame. But she retains her fine figure. And her face, he says. Look at how young and beautiful and unlined it is. It’s as if she doesn’t age.

Over the months, with the drugs and the torment, the memories fade. Flora begins to believe it is, in fact, all in her mind. Then she looks over and sees the black velvet dress in her room. On the front is a dark blood spot, stiff and crushing the fabric. At these times, she loses all semblance of sanity, and screams into the faces of those around her until they strap her down and abuse her.

The only thought to comfort her becomes, Soon I will die. I must. She will sigh in relief. Death. Release. Soon it’s all she can think about.

Then his voice booms in her head, making her wince and shut tight her eyes. Death? No. I have given you a gift. You will live on, here, forever.

“Like this?” She whispers it.

She hears his voice, loud and nearby. Like this. Unfortunately, love, it seems the contraption wasn’t quite ready.

You’ve destroyed me and abandoned me. My body … My mind …

Both compromised, I’m afraid. I’ll keep at it. I will fetch you if ever I am successful. Honestly, darling, I do need someone with at least half a mind. You’re just … a little off. It seems a bit impossible now. But, remember, we have forever. Nothing but time. Then he is gone, not to return.

Flora’s face collapses in horror and her poisoned mind spirits her away, back to the burned-out mansion, back to the ballroom, back to that world between worlds.

She shuts her eyes tightly and wills herself to fade into the darkness. It is all she can do.

END.

By Jill Kiesow

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