From the author: A segment from an upcoming collection, A COLD QUICKSILVER SWEAT.
Therese was not happy with merely one ring.
I'd like to emphasize a pair of points, at the beginning.
First, I'm not one of those insufferable fellows who expects a woman to be merely an appendage to his existence. The women I've given my heart to have all been impressive people in their own rights, often far more capable than I. Ulrika's paintings were gathering a following; Ndidi was an associate professor of Literature. Et cetera.
I've always desired marriage as a union of equals, and for that matter am not disturbed to sometimes feel like the partner of lesser worth. I don't feel "threatened," as they say, indeed nothing like a threat should ever disturb the mutual respect and cherishment of a loving marriage. Certainly there should not be even the possibility of violence.
As long, I mean, as they follow the rules in the Handbook I present them. (I used to call it the Enchiridion, but Ulrika said the title was "risibly pretentious". That was among the last things she said to me, now that I think of it.)
Twenty-seven rules, all logical and free of contradictions; that's all I require. Otherwise — and only as a last resort, following an offer of mediation — the horizontal guillotine trap or its ilk may come into play.
It wasn't until I exhumed Ulrika — oh, almost forgot, the second point: in secular, legal terms, these relationships might not have been considered marriages. It's better that way; if one's legally wed spouse happens to vanish from the face of the earth, it's a deuce of a bother to have her declared dead so that one might entertain the next connubial candidate.
But, in every single instance, we had our own ceremony, in my family chapel, and it always felt like a real marriage to me. Every time. I may as well present here the same list I gave to Therese as part of the full disclosure she demanded.
Name; country of origin; profession; demise:
1. Ulrika; Norway; artist; Horizontal Guillotine Trap.
2. Ndidi; Nigeria; Assoc. Prof.; Horizontal Guillotine Trap.
3. Flora; UK; Music Historian; Velvet Anaconda.
(I admit to a weakness for ladies of the arts and academe; they are more accepting of the peculiar.)
4. Hanna; U.S.A.; plainclothes police sergeant; Eau de Pénalité.
(Hanna was actually investigating the previous three disappearances, that's how we met.)
And to each bride, I gave a gold ring. My mother's.
And, oh, my god, it just now occurs to me: perhaps if I hadn't given all the Penalty Instruments such fanciful names (listed in the Penalties Appendix), my wives might've taken the Handbook a little more seriously.
Well. Live and learn, I suppose.
Therese was a new experience for me. So free-spirited. Wonderfully unpredictable.
We kept meeting in what seemed a series of charming coincidences that I later learned were the culmination of a year of her stalking me, looking into my sadly truncated relationships. Ostensibly, she was researching for a book on—and I found this a bit insulting—serial killers.
Therese was special. She knew what had happened to my wives (or, knew enough to make my circumstances uncomfortable). I argued, convincingly I think, that being serially unlucky in love does not one a serial killer make. Her response was to laugh—and she has a musical laugh, amazingly high, it's like a glissando on a celesta, goes on and on, the cat hates it but truly it's charming. She laughed and said she was a "fan."
Flattery is never a false move with me, I'm afraid; really vanity is my only vice. Proposing to Therese was inevitable; how could I resist?
Fifth time's the charm? I certainly hoped so; there was only one of my mother's rings left.
She not only read the Handbook, she worked out loopholes I'd never thought of. So much depends on using the proper form of address. She found ways to be very insistent while remaining within the letter of the law. (And if one doesn't abide by the letter of the law, what's the point of even writing it down?)
A particular point of insistence was what I considered a superfluity of rings. On bended knee, I'd given her a diamond, of course, with the understanding that our marriage would be sealed with a gold ring passed down from my mother. She had kept her ring from each marriage, making five, and I offered the last—the nicest, IMNSHO, with a garnet cabochon—to Therese.
She was unhappy, it seemed, with the other four rings being where they were, which was in four unmarked graves. A set, she declared, should never be broken up.
(She's a little obsessive about collections, I think. A "completist," as they say. And oh, my god I just now thought: What if I'm not the first serial—the first man with a string of tragically truncated relationships she's been involved with? Disheartening possibility. A fellow wishes to feel he's special in a woman's life.)
I asked what in the world she'd do with five rings, and she just laughed that ear-piercing laugh for the longest time. Next I knew, I was digging behind a scenic mill in Connecticut, excavating the basement of an abandoned daycare center in Michigan, and absolutely flying to Europe to conduct a one-man roving archaeological expedition (since to be frank my memory was a trifle hazy regarding which island, in a lake, on an island, I'd chosen as Flora's resting place).
Then, ho! back to the States, and diving into a frigid Minnesota lake to recover, and crack open, the enormous perfume bottle full of Hanna.
By this time, my back was in such a state I worried about performing my conjugal duties in our four-poster nuptial bed, come the wedding night. But, mission accomplished, I had all five rings in my pocket.
Therese requested four of them at once, before the wedding.
"Whatever for, my dear?"
"You'll see, Putz!" (She'd pointed out that the rules of the Handbook allowed for "colorful phrases and sobriquets" in various non-English languages. I honest-to-God cannot remember what I had in mind when I inserted that codicil to Rule Seven, but surely it came not from any interest in absorbing unlimited Yiddish insults.)
Looking back, ghosts weren't a problem at all until I undertook a series of exhumations. Not even a factor in my planning at all; I cannot recall even a one before that, ghosts I mean, and a fellow would remember that sort of thing. Perhaps it was because I'd disturbed their rest, and wrested those lovely gold rings from their cold hands. In any case, they began pestering me after that. Ulrika and Ndidi, side by side, each pointing at me with one hand, and with her head tucked under the other arm.
Finger-pointing is itself a violation of one of the first ten rules in the Handbook, but with no options for dealing with it—I'd already given them both the maximum penalty listed in the Penalties Appendix at the back of the book—I closed the curtains around my bed and tried to sleep, only to be jolted awake by an awful sort of keening.
A peek through the curtains showed me the beheaded ladies had been joined by Flora. Purple-faced, eyes a-bulge, producing the exact sound I remembered from just before the Velvet Anaconda squeezed the voice out of her forever (or so I thought).
I put in earplugs and set my mind to a contemplation of rosier days to come with Therese. No sooner had I closed my eyes than a bright light shone from above. It was the sort of harsh incandescent glare they use in interrogation rooms in old movies, and as I blinked up at it, the light softened and resolved itself into the face of Hanna, sitting on the bed, staring silently.
Her face held a flat, perfectly blank expression, perhaps just tinged with disappointment. I could imagine her eliciting confessions with that mute stare. From criminals—not from me! I protested: "It's in the Handbook! Rules exist for a reason!"
By now they were all within the bed curtains, with me. Ulrika and Ndidi seemed thick as thieves; they each held the other's head. (I have to think that appealed to Ulrika's sense of aesthetics; it provided a striking juxtaposition of complexions.)
Flora with her undying wail, Hanna with her somber gaze making a fellow feel as if he were in the wrong—
I will say, they all four still looked lovely in their gowns. (I'd buried them in their gowns, of course. One of the conditions made clear in the Handbook is that once a lady marries me, that wedding gown—designed, by me, especially for her—is her daily dress from then until death do us part, and as it turns out even after that.)
After a sleepless night, they all vanished with the morning sun, yet I knew they'd return. With some trepidation I went to Therese and told her what had happened, offering her the chance to rescind our engagement if she felt the presence of four dead exes would be an impediment to her happiness as a married woman.
To my great relief Therese not only believed my story, but was fascinated and—delighted? Certainly very intense. I never had a great deal of luck interpreting her expressions.
She insisted on keeping our wedding plans that night. When she appeared in the chapel (it doesn't have to be a chapel; any octagonal room will do) wearing her gown for the first time, I thought I'd never seen such a beautiful bride. And I was soon able to make the comparison, since the other four showed up as soon as she did.
Therese looked each of them in the face—more than that, she made a point of showing each former bride what use she'd made of her one-time ring. With a visit to the jeweler, she'd had them fashioned into two earrings, and two—well, two nipple rings, not the pierced kind but, I suppose you'd call them annular? Visible beneath the fabric of her bodice, and I was glad I'd used the softest silk charmeuse for such a sensitive area.
Then, came the ceremony, and even with Ulrika and Ndidi pointing one at me and one at Therese, expressions of outrage on the faces on their detached heads, and Hanna's stony glare of accusation, and Flora's ungodly choking death-wail requiring Therese and I to shout the vows to one another ... it was lovely.
The wedding night, by the bye, was a truly memorable affair, in a macabre sort of way that Therese (to give her credit) somehow made pleasurable. I almost forgot about the four pairs of accusing dead eyes on us. It was, I dare say, a magical night. When you're with the right person, you just know it.
Or sometimes you think it, and feel pretty sure about it, but later somebody dies. Bringing us to this evening.
As I mentioned, my five unions, sanctified though they may be in the eyes of the Almighty, have not been what the state, or any other merely human government, would call legal marriages. Therese, in our first week together, insisted on our mutually signing various documents—powers of attorney, joint accounts, my will and testament, that sort of thing. She read every word of every page, and knowing her love for such details I couldn't help but indulge her.
Details, yes ... therein, the Devil. None of my bride's four predecessors, who now nightly surrounded our marriage bed, had ever grasped the details of my helpful Handbook as minutely as did Therese.
The fatal passage is right there in the Appendix of Penalties. Or rather, something is *not* there—no pronouns, no specification of which spouse is being referred to. Each potential penalty merely "applies" and "may be brought into play" when certain conditions are met—mainly, when there are at least three matters of domestic dispute, and professional arbitration has been declined.
(With Ulrika, for instance, it was: 1) dishes, and their proper placement within a dishwashing appliance; 2) choice of vacation destinations; 3) not wanting me to lock her in the Contemplation Anteroom for five days every month when I took my sabbatical, my little battery-recharging session. My alone time. Thus do we foolish mortals ruin perfect happiness.)
You see where I'm headed? In no place does the Appendix of Penalties say that it must be the Husband who activates the relevant Penalty Instrument. The rules allow either party to make the first move (final move, perhaps). I'm a fair man.
Ulrika, Ndidi, Flora, Hanna, each had full opportunity to deploy the Jade Earwig, lure me to my end in the Placental Oubliette, or unleash the Interrupting Dropbear. It is no fault of mine they hesitated.
Therese, to her credit, simply understood the rules better than they had ... and I, quite frankly, had forgotten it was even a possibility I might be hoisted on my own petard. (Technically the Noisy Candygram is a petard, but it's never been properly tested and I tend to forget it's even on the list of Penalty Instruments.)
Who started the argument? No idea, it was that sort of an evening, we were both restless, I think, waiting for the ghosts to show up, and possibly tempers flared a little. Forgetting that there were already two disagreements between us unresolved (the abomination of wall-to-wall carpeting she'd had installed without my knowledge; and apparently I watch "too many" British cooking shows), I summarily dismissed what I reckoned a facetious request that I meet her mother. (Why in God's name would I want to do that?)
I said no, simply no. She asked in what I took to be a sarcastic tone whether I wanted to— well, her exact words were, "Do you want to run down to the mall and sit on a department store Santa's lap and ask him what we should do?" I declined, frankly baffled at the notion, it not occurring to me at the moment that this fulfilled the Handbook definition of an offer of arbitration, and the refusal thereof.
And, then, my delicious bride immediately—without hesitation—activated the Ascending Trapdoor. That's where I was standing, you see, something that never would have happened were it not for that damnable carpet covering the pattern of stone tiles that normally reminded me to avoid that spot.
So, there I was. Here I am. Quite dead.
Fair's fair, and I don't begrudge her the victory. And my passing did reunite me with the four wives who didn't kill me. Death, I find, is a leveler, a great eraser of grievances. Now that I'm just as dead as they are, the ladies have, if not forgiven me, at least accepted me into their circle.
We only really exist at night, and the place is usually empty because Therese is off spending my money in Capri or Aspen or, for God's sake, Wisconsin (she once said there are great serial killers there, undiscovered independent artists; go figure). But one perseveres.
On the plus side ... I'm single again. Ladies.