The First Bride didn’t work out, but enough about that.
The Second Bride is provided with everything she needs upon arrival–the correct shoes, coarse soap for her body and soft soap for her face, a booklet of helpful advice, a companion and advisor named Brigita, a private room. The Second Bride has been invited to decorate the private room however she would like. She could send her things from home if she’ll miss them, or get new things. Any new things she wants. She gets new things.
When she arrives her room is set up just as she had specified, though it seems off somehow. She adjusts a dark wooden side table slightly, so it is squarer under the high window, through which she can only see sky. She lifts the front legs of the chaise lounge and tugs the Oriental rug partially beneath it, so that when she sets the lounge back down the rug looks, to her, to be twice as long. She takes the few things she’s brought from home–some of her mother’s jewelry, a small box containing her milk teeth, a slim stack of letters from the man she would have considered marrying if she weren’t The Bride–and tucks them between cushions completely out of sight. Then she rearranges the cushions. Then she rearranges them again. There, she thinks. Now it’s perfect.
To anyone else, I can assure you, the room would look exactly the same as it did before she arrived.
There are rules. There have always been rules, but now there are rules and Brigita.
The Second Bride must never put on or take off her own shoes, because the way one bends one’s body to do so puts pressure on the uterus; Brigita is there first thing in the morning and last thing at night to deal with her shoes for her. The Second Bride must take exceptional care of her teeth, for healthy teeth indicate vitality; Brigita watches her clean them to ensure she does it correctly and frequently enough. The Second Bride’s palms must never be showing when she isn’t using her hands because discipline over one’s hands indicates physical discipline in general; in order to ensure the Second Bride’s hands are rarely in use, Brigita is always there to complete even the smallest task.
Brigita reviews the advice in the helpful booklet as she puts in The Second Bride’s earrings and smooths the creases in her clothing.
“When are you to run?” asks Brigita.
“Never,” says The Second Bride.
“When are you to fight?” asks Brigita.
“Never,” says The Second Bride.
“When may you be alone?” asks Brigita
The Second Bride honestly can’t remember.
“Aside from when The Commander wants your company, you may be alone whenever you’d like,” says Brigita. She smiles and gestures. “That’s what this room is for.”
“Right,” says The Second Bride, wishing Brigita would leave. “Thank you.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” says Brigita.
The Commander’s real name is Victor and he was born with extra teeth, already grown in, which The Second Bride knows as well as anyone else means he’s a liar, though The Commander suggests it only indicates that in women. For men it indicates–something else. It changes depending on what particular facet of himself he’d like to talk about. Boisterous, honorable, a delight to all. To his credit, The Second Bride notices that his peers do seem to genuinely delight in his company and yield to his authority. In fact, The Second Bride isn’t clear on what The Commander commands, aside from the attention of everyone around him. He has guards, too, though she isn’t sure either about what he needs protection from. Maybe the same people showing him the affection. Maybe the affection becomes all too much, at some point.
The Second Bride, who spends all social evenings standing beside and slightly behind Brigita, just as Brigita showed her to do, has made a game of catching glimpses of The Commander’s extra, prophetic teeth, which dot the roof of his mouth like pearls. She watches for them while he speaks, or laughs, or takes a bite of food. They are easiest to see when he drinks from a clear glass, his tongue depressed, the roof of his mouth exposed and horrible.
On their first night as a married couple, only a few days after her arrival, The Commander tells her to run her tongue over them. “They’re not going anywhere,” he says. “So you better get used to them.”
“I already am,” she says, and obliges.
From The Booklet of Helpful Advice:
— When pregnant you must wear a key on a chain around your neck to deflect the harmful rays of the moon. Otherwise, the moon might fill your baby’s mouth with milk teeth. If a baby is born with milk teeth, she will grow into a liar.
— If your baby will grow into a liar, pay special attention to what animals are drawn to her in her infancy. If dogs seem especially curious about her, she will lie for self gain. If black cats, she will lie to ease the suffering of others. If white cats, her lies will result in a death. If all three, the death will be her own.
— If your child is doomed to cause her own death, make note of the foods she prefers, the medicines she requires, the people she accepts or rejects, the reasons she cries. Note her gait as she learns to walk, her attitude as she approaches puberty, the magnitude of her humor, the quickness of her temper, the scope of her beliefs. Pay special attention to which language she chooses to speak with her friends, to how seriously she takes ghost stories, to how brave she is in the wild dark. Every time she relates a dream to you, make a notch in your belt. The number of notches will help you calculate the nature of her end.
1 notch: She will envelope herself in a man everyone else can see is dangerous.
2 notches: She will swallow things she should not.
3 notches: She will dance too near the edges of cliffs.
4 notches: She will walk into the river and stay there.
5 notches: She will find herself pregnant, and won’t have the sense to protect herself from the moon.
The Second Bride is not pregnant, though she has gotten better about shaking off Brigita. One night, when Brigita has dozed off while reading and The Commander is with some men downstairs, The Second Bride decides to leave her room and go to the library on the floor above, which opens onto a balcony. She wants to feel the breeze and look at the night sky, which she can only see a tiny sliver off through the high window of her room.
But in the library, two guards step between her and the window, coming together from each side like a dark curtain. She isn’t sure where they came from. She isn’t sure at what point they started following her, or if they didn’t follow her, and there are guards posted in every room.
“We’re to prevent you from getting too close to any high windows or ledges,” they explain. “For safety reasons. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
“I just want to look at the view,” she says.
“We’ll describe it to you,” they say. “If that would help.”
“It would,” she says. “Thank you.”
They turn their backs to her. As they begin to describe the moon, the cloudless sky, the valley she where she was born below and the low glow of the lights in the streets there, she walks away.
They could still be there talking, for all she knows.
The Commander is concerned. He claims he’s noticed a drop in The Second Bride’s appetite. She has only been there for a month, and rarely eats in front of him, so she isn’t sure how he could have noticed anything about her appetite either way. But Brigita takes the issue under advisement, and rings for servants to bring vegetable broth and blueberries and rice, which she feeds to The Second Bride as she lies in bed.
“I think I’d like to redecorate my room,” says The Second Bride, watching a spoonful of broth come toward her face.
“That’d be fine,” says Brigita.
“I think I’d like to pick out some new books,” says The Second Bride after swallowing.
“Anytime,” says Brigita.
“I think I’d like a tomato salad,” says The Second Bride. She is thinking in particular about a tomato salad the man she would have probably married used to make, seemed to always have around in the summer. “Tomatoes and onion and vinegar,” she says. “And I’d like it served with sausage.”
Brigita puts the bowl of broth down on the table The Second Bride had so carefully adjusted when she first moved in. “You know you can’t have those things,” she says.
“Right. From The Booklet of Helpful Advice, Section Three, Diet-Do not eat tomatoes,” says the Second Bride, “it’s bad for the baby. Do not eat bread, it’s bad for the baby. Do not eat pomegranates or apples, both are bad for the baby. Do not eat salt, it’s bad for the baby. Do not eat anything grown on a vine, it’s bad for the baby. Do not eat anything from the sea, it’s bad for the baby. Do not eat fowl, cattle, pigs, deer, wild boar, crickets, ants, or honey, it’s bad for the baby. Do not eat dairy–dairy is bad for you and what’s bad for you is bad for the baby.”
Brigita, clearly irritated, waits.
“But there is no baby,” says The Second Bride. “And I want a tomato salad.”
Brigita stands, picking up the bowl of broth. She reaches into the pocket of her skirt and pulls out a wad of chain, on which is a key. “I heard you tried to look at the moon the other night,” she says.
“Tried,” says The Second Bride.
“Next time, you’d better be wearing a key around your neck,” Brigita says, pushing the chain at her. “You don’t want anyone to think you didn’t take every precaution. You don’t want The Commander to think that. Do you.”
“No,” says The Second Bride, humiliated, scalp tingling. She takes the key.
“Well then forget about tomatoes. And don’t let me ever catch you without that key.” And then Brigita does something she’s never done before – she turns and leaves. She closes the door behind her.
The Second Bride is completely, consumingly, alone.
But now The Second Bride has a key, which ostensibly opens something. If a key doesn’t open something it isn’t really a key, and if it isn’t really a key it can’t be counted on as a precaution against the moon. So she’ll find what it opens, just to be sure it’s real.
She opens the door of her private room a crack and peeks down the hallway, to the left, to the right. It’s dark. From the dim light coming from her room she can see the carpet runner and darkly colored walls and paintings and side tables covered in flowers. There are unlit wall sconces. It is as dark as it would be had her entire corner of the house has been sealed up and abandoned.
She steps out of her room and, testing the knob first to make sure it isn’t locked from the outside, closes the door behind her, sealing the hall in darkness. She tries the key in the keyhole under the knob, which she has to feel for. It fits, but does not turn. So she feels her way across the hall and tries the door there. Then she crosses back, trying the next-door down. She moves down the whole hallway this way, trying every door, feeling for each keyhole in the dark. It fits in all of them, but turns in none of them.
She begins to worry that Brigita did in fact give her a fake, decorative key, that this is some kind of sabotage. She ascends the stairs, up to the floor were the library is. She tries a few of the closed doors there. Nothing. She tries the library door, only to find it doesn’t even have a keyhole.
Frustrated, she goes back down to her hall, feels her way back toward her door. She grips a knob and it doesn’t open. She finds another knob, which doesn’t either. She has no idea, in the dark, which one is hers. Even if she could figure out which one is hers, she must have accidentally locked it while testing the key, because she was certain it was unlocked but now none of the doors will open. Any one of these doors could be hers, yet none of them are hers. She is as lost as she would be in a dark wilderness.
“Excuse me,” she says into the blackness, hoping a guard, or anyone, really, is there, invisible to her. “My key isn’t working.” She hopes, too, that no one is there, that no one would have noticed her circle the corridor so many times, listening to her whimpering and begging the key to work, and not offer any help.
No one answers. There isn’t a guard there. But she knows how to summon one. In fact, she knows how to summon two. So she feels her way back up to the library. “I can’t wait to stand at this high ledge,” she says loudly as she enters the room, “and look at the view.” She walks to the window. No one appears. Below her the trees in the valley flutter in a breeze. The moon is low on the hills on the opposite side. “I feel like I’m higher up than the moon,” she shouts. “It would be terrible if I fell from here.”
“Do you have your key?” Brigita asks, suddenly behind her.
“How long have you been there?”
“I’ve hardly been away. Do you have the key?”
The Second Bride holds it up for her to see. “But it’s not a real key,” she says. “It fits in all the locks but it doesn’t open anything.”
“No,” Brigita says. She pulls a chain out from her collar, on which there is an identical key. “You have the one that locks. I have the one that unlocks.”
“Why would you give me a key that only does one of a key’s two jobs,” says The Second Bride, walking past Brigita toward the door. “That’s completely useless.”
“Not as useless as no key at all,” says Brigita.
The Second Bride has some trouble determining the strategic use of a key that will only lock when her guardian has a key that will unlock. She is awake through most nights, thinking about this, or arranging and rearranging her things, or reading the hidden letters from the man she would have married, a blend of novice but endearingly complicated pornography and abject pessimism, both of which are a far cry from The Commander, whose sexual appetites are simple and whose good cheer seems impermeable.
Shortly after describing how she might be brought to orgasm, one of the letters concludes, “Isn’t it stupid that we love each other even though something has to go wrong. Something always goes wrong, and happiness always ends.” The first time she read that it hurt her feelings. Now she reads through to the orgasm for entertainment but skips the dour conclusion, which is of no use to her.
As wakeful nights like this pass, her eyes adjust to the dark. Not the way yours or mine would adjust to the dark and then to the light again, but just to the dark. By the time she has been in The Commander’s house for two hundred days, she has to lower her eyes from the glare at dinners, hide from the sun during the day, beg for the lights to be as low as possible when she visits the Commander in his room. But she can see as well in the pitch dark as a cat.
She begins to wander the house in the small hours of the morning, after every guest and servant has gone to sleep. If there is a lit sconce, lamp, or candle, she extinguishes it so she can see better. She takes her key and places it in the keyhole of every door, locking everyone into the rooms where they sleep. Then, before sunrise, she returns to her room and goes to bed. It takes Brigita so long to let everyone out of the rooms they’ve been locked into that she doesn’t get to The Second Bride’s locked door until it’s nearly evening again. The Second Bride doesn’t think she has ever slept better than she does on the days Brigita has to unlock all the doors. The Commander notes she looks well rested on those days, too, but doesn’t seem to care why.
The Second Bride likes him more all the time.
Fall arrives and suddenly The Second Bride is pregnant. Before she became pregnant, she felt like it would give her a sense of a burden lifted, of a job done. But it does exactly the opposite. Now she is aware of her body’s every tic and grumble. Now she fears her own cravings. Now she is worried about bringing her body, the home of another body, through the dark hallways at night. Even if she can see through the darkness, the possibility of accident is everywhere.
She burns her old love letters, certain their author’s pessimism is bad luck. She lights them in the fire in her room and holds them for a moment as they curl into ash. She realizes she is inhaling the smoke. The only thing unluckier than having the letters, she thinks, is inhaling the letters. So she drops them into the hearth and runs from the room. She stays in the hallway until Brigita finds her there, in tears.
“What have you done?” Brigita asks, opening the door to The Second Bride’s room, searching for signs of misstep.
But The Second Bride can’t tell her, because to tell her she’d have to confess she had kept another man’s letters in the first place. “I haven’t done anything,” she says. “But I’m so worried. What if I do do something?” She tugs at the key on her neck. “What if something goes wrong?”
Brigita puts her hands on The Second Bride’s shoulders. “Something will go wrong,” she says quietly. “Something always does.”
Hearing these words, The Second Bride realizes what she’s done, that she can’t get the letters back. Any part of them, the entertaining parts or the hurtful parts–they’re all gone. He’s all gone. She tugs again at the stupid, useless key.
“I’ll make sure things go as smoothly as we could hope,” Brigita says, squeezing her shoulders.
“Thank you,” sniffs The Second Bride.
The Second Bride’s belly grows and the tiny beast inside of it prods and kicks at her. From her bed, where Brigita brings her her meals, she complains about this.
Brigita frowns. “Boys never kick,” she says. “Only girls do.”
The Second Bride doesn’t complain about it again.
The Second Bride, now enormous and exhausted from bed rest, wants to visit home. She wants to see her parents. Or she wants them to see her. It’s difficult to know the difference.
The Commander thinks this is a wonderful idea. Why didn’t he come up with it months ago, he wonders at her belly, which is the only part of her body to which he will now address himself. He thinks everyone should see her. “It will be like a parade,” he says, kissing the crown of her abdomen. “Like your own holiday. Think of how happy your old neighbors will be to see us.”
The Second Bride thinks of it, and knows that by happy he means envious. The idea warms her, and she extends a hand, which he takes. “I’d like it very much,” she says, squeezing his fingers.
The Commander and Brigita make arrangements. They pull a whole caravan to the front of the house. They perch The Second Bride in the very front, in the open air. It’s the beginning of spring but it is still chilly out, so they tuck her in blankets. They wedge a pillow beneath her feet. The sunlight hurts her eyes so she focuses on the embroidered pattern on the pillow. It is a repeated image of a hunter and a just shot buck, fallen and bloodied but surrounded by flowers. She wonders who made it.
The Commander takes a seat beside her. Brigita climbs in behind them and adjusts The Second Bride’s hair, which is ornately done, much more ornately than usual. The Second Bride shields her eyes and glances back at the line of drivers and servants and guests The Commander has invited along. Everyone is still, waiting for the signal to move. Then she looks forward. A breeze brushes past them, pulling apart the strands of hair Brigita has just arranged. Nothing else moves. The Second Bride isn’t sure why The Commander isn’t giving the signal they’re all waiting for.
Eventually, The Commander leans toward her belly and says to it, “You need to tell us where to go before we can go anywhere.”
“To the house I grew up in,” says The Second Bride.
“Yes but where is that,” says Brigita, “relative to here?”
But The Second Bride doesn’t know. She isn’t sure she ever knew. She’s only made the trip once. “There are three trees,” she says, “lining the road. The house is behind them.”
“Which part of the valley?”
If she did know, she can’t remember. “The gate is broken,” she says. “It’s the house with three trees and a broken gate.”
The Commander climbs down from his seat and makes his way through the caravan, telling everyone to go inside, telling the servants to arrange for dinner as usual, telling the guests to make themselves comfortable, apologizing. His voice, receding down the line, doesn’t sound angry–he never does-but The Second Bride is certain he’s angry. Soon no one is left outside but she and Brigita.
“It’s too cold to sit out here,” says Brigita.
“So go inside,” says The Second Bride.
They both sit in silence until dark.
In the beginning, before she learned to see in the night, before the pregnancy, before even the key, The Second Bride would close her eyes when she was with The Commander and pretend he was his own house, and that she was feeling her way through in the darkness, familiarizing herself. Here is the dining room, she would think, with its long table and a roster of guests that changes so quickly she never recognizes a single one. Here is the kitchen, full of knives. Here is a back hallway, lined with bells that call the servants. Here is a parlor: side tables, couches, curtains. Here are paintings and wallpaper. Here are shelves full of books. Here is a high, open window. And here–here is an unobstructed view of the moon.
The baby is not a girl.
“I knew it would be a boy,” Brigita says over its new and powerful voice, taking it from one of about a dozen midwives who appeared the moment The Second Bride’s body crippled itself with labor pains. They wear white and dart around The Second Bride’s private room like a flock of giant, startled doves. Several of them are covered in The Second Bride’s blood. The Second Bride is also covered in The Second Bride’s blood. She is drowsy with pain. She feels heavy but also like she is floating. She feels like a celestial body, immense but flying up in the sky.
“It knew it would be a boy,” Brigita goes on, ignoring the way the midwives are running around her, “because he only kicked you the once, and only girls kick.” She stops one of the midwives and hands the baby over, instructing her to bring it to The Commander. Then she sits on the edge of the bed. As her weight shifts the mattress, The Second Bride can feel how damp and sticky the space beneath her body is.
“I am so proud of you,” Brigita says quietly. She is barely audible over the escalating voices of the midwives, who sound panicked. The Second Bride can’t imagine why they’d be panicked, since the hard part is over. She wishes they would calm down. “You ate exactly what I brought you,” Brigita goes on. “You never ran, and never fought, and you always wore your key.” She removes the key from her own throat and, working her fingers under The Second Bride’s damp neck, fastens the chain there, so both keys rest on The Second Bride’s chest. They feel leaden, heavy, like they might fall through her.
Brigita puts a hand on her hair and strokes it away from her face. “I am so proud of you,” she says again. “You are exactly what The First Bride should have been.”
The Second Bride nods and closes her eyes, pleased that there is a baby, pleased she had kept quiet about the kicking, pleased that she has been awarded both keys, pleased that the hard part is over.
Surely, she thinks, the hard part is over.