Night’s candles have burnt out.
The last time he touched her was the night they cleaned the gory secret from each other’s skin. He trembled and shook, and she washed him like a child awakened from a nightmare.
When a man’s grief takes hold, it relieves him of responsibility. A woman’s is practical: there is work to be done. Hell is murky, and there were candles to be lit.
She said: ‘For you I would murder the world.’
As she dressed him, guilt solidified. In him it became a passionate hobby; in her, only a tender sort of madness, like a bruise on the soul.
‘A little water clears us of this deed.’
But who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
In the morning, it began: the torturous chess game to check whose heart was blackest. At breakfast she fed him blackberries – hand-picked – and mopped where the juice ran down his chin. He pushed her hand away. She raised another handful, dark and poisonous, but he would not eat. She knew the reason for his cruelty: if she was monstrous, he was not.
Wash your hands, put on your nightgown. Look not so pale…
Her as mother, or nurse – him, the ghost in their marriage – their bed dark and snug like a coffin. But still the deed felt special – this thing that they had done together. The Thane of Fife had a wife, and all his pretty ones lie in cold beds now. Ignore them suckling at her in her sleep. Ignore their grasping little fingers.
He sleeps no more. He doesn’t say his prayers.
And here’s the smell of blood still!
But his nightmares visit him – asleep or not. Little dead children hold his daggers to their throats; prostitutes become his witches, whispering.
‘O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.’
She says: ‘You used to look at me.’
She stops her monthly bleeding. As if her body knows she’s taken children. Her hands will not come clean.
She starts to dress herself in pale silks, screaming her innocence at him in a swish of fabric. A soft sky blue glows against her skin; cream sets off the colour of her hair.
Yet here’s a spot…
She may as well have dressed herself in shadow. She gets good at telling herself how fine and justifiable his abandonment of her is.
In the end, she does it neatly – outside, where the mess won’t fall to other women. In her swoop, she wonders if he hears the screech of the owl, if he’ll be wakeful still, pacing their floors, speaking out loud to spectres.
Too late for that now.
To bed, to bed: there’s knocking at the gate.