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Cinderella wants her Prince Charming dead in this sophisticated fairy-tale for the twenty-first century.
Cinderella married the man of her dreamsthe perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, thirteen and a half years later, things have gone badly wrong and her life is far from perfect. One night, fed up and exhausted, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives. But as the old hag flings the last ingredients into the cauldron, Cinderella doesn't ask for a love spell to win back her Prince Charming. Instead, she wants him dead.
Endlessly surprising, wildly inventive, and decidedly modern, The Charmed Wife weaves together time and place, fantasy and reality, to conjure a world unlike any other. Nothing in it is quite what it seemsthe twists and turns of its magical, dark, and swiftly shifting paths take us deep into the heart of what makes us unique, of romance and marriage, and of the very nature of storytelling.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Close to the Beginning of the End
Hate is a clenched fist in my heart. It keeps my nerves numb as I lie in the dark, pretending to be asleep, waiting for my husband's breathing to grow slow and even. It takes some time; he tosses and mumbles before falling still at last. Once I know the draught I poured into his wine has done its work, I slide out of bed and dress as soundlessly as I can, and oh, I can be very quiet indeed-I am well practiced in silence. I do not light a candle. The room is pitch black, for the fire has long since died in the fireplace, but I have no need of sight to find my clothes, to skirt the perils of invisible corners: this has been my bedroom for the past thirteen years-thirteen and a half, to be precise-and I have measured its every inch in hours of wall-to-wall pacing. And a candle might wake Brie and Nibbles, who are such nervous sleepers.
The shoes, the lightest among a hundred ballroom pairs I own, are lined up by the dresser, and the borrowed cloak, the color of shadows, is waiting folded on the chair. As I put it on, I grope for the sewing scissors I slipped into its pocket earlier in the day, and the touch of cold metal reassures me. Ready at last, I tiptoe to my husband's side of the bed-and at once, without warning, I am rattled by a memory of our wedding. The moon was enchanted that night, white as the richest cream, bright as the brightest candle, as is traditional on similar momentous occasions; once he slept, I stared at his profile, outlined by the moon's brilliance against the pillow plush with the Golden Goose down, and cried tears of joy at my great fortune. But tonight, there is no moon, and all I can see is a pool of denser darkness in the dark. For a minute I stand unmoving, just listening to him breathe, until I become aware of the scissors' edge cutting painfully into the palm of my hand. And now I want to cry again, if for a vastly different reason. I do not cry. I bend lower instead and feel amidst the moist swirls of satin sheets. When I alight upon his curls at last, the perfumed waviness of his hair is soft, so very soft, under my fingertips.
I swoop down upon him with the scissors.
The mice do not stir in their walnut-shell beds as I creep out of the bedroom, the snipped lock of hair tucked away in the pouch concealed at my hip, next to a few other things already there: a bunch of dried flowers tied with a fading lavender ribbon, a miniature portrait in a bejeweled locket, a sapphire brooch that I will hand over as payment when all this is over, and fingernail clippings from my husband's left hand.
"It must be the hand he uses to shoot," the witch told me the night I went to see her.
"Shoot?" I repeated, confused. "Shoot what?"
"How should I know?" she snarled. "Stags, swans, sirens, whatever it might be his pleasure to shoot. They all shoot something, dearie."
I stayed quiet then, because the echo in the witch's cave filled all words with a cold, hollow menace and I felt afraid of the treacherous sound of my own voice, and also because I never like to contradict anyone, but I thought: My husband doesn't shoot, he just signs papers-still, as some of them are execution orders, perhaps it comes to much the same thing? And at dawn of the fall equinox, as instructed, I gathered the yellowing crescents of his left-hand nails off the floor of his changing room before the Singing Maids got to them, hoping it would be enough.
I carry my lantern unlit under the plain gray cloak as I hurry along the corridors. Out of the corner of one eye, I catch the reflection of an escaped blond strand and a pale cheekbone in the glass of a grandfather clock, and pull the hood lower, so no one will wonder where I am going at this late hour. But the hallways are deserted, which is just as it should be, for here, all things run on schedule. Every afternoon, at five o'clock on the dot, porcelain teapots bustle through the palace, knocking on doors with their gleaming spouts, splashing tea into dancing teacups wherever required, after which chandelier crystals begin to tinkle in all the ballrooms, chamber orchestras commence playing repetitive waltzes, and courtiers twirl, one-two-three, one-two-three, and gift one another with fatuous smiles, and dine on roasted quail and little cakes with apricot icing, and talk about the new fashion for pastel-colored gloves. Then the music winds down and they curtsy and part ways until breakfast the following morning, when the busy flock of teapots flits through the hallways once more, steaming with tea, not too strong, plenty of cream, plenty of sugar, every day, every month, every year, over and over again. At this late hour, so close to midnight, everyone is long since in bed. Only once do I meet a solitary candle sprite hurrying to an assignation with a candle burning somewhere, but it is too aquiver to pay my passage any heed; for love makes everyone blind, as simpering court storytellers are forever fond of intoning, quite as if blindness were a happy circumstance in which we all long to share.
Storytellers are dangerous fools, and my eyes are wide open now.
I sweep past dim expanses of reception chambers, past mirrored staircases leading down into multiplied shadows. As I near the Ancestor Gallery, I slow my steps, but the portraits are dozing, the kings snoring mightily, their beards rising and falling, the queens making thin, delicate noises through dusty smiles. No ancestors of mine, I tell them soundlessly as I slip by. In the Great Hall, candelabra are ablaze along the walls and two guards stand flanking the iron-bound doors. I freeze, my heart lurching, then see that they, too, are asleep, helmets drooping over ceremonial lances, the gargantuan visitor log book sprawling unattended between the ostentatious flower arrangement and the old-fashioned apparatus on the slumbering concierge's desk. Sliding a little on the marble floor, I steal across to the doors, lean on them with my shoulder, gather all my strength, and push.
The doors do not creak. The guards do not wake.
I step over the threshold.
Light from the hall has fallen onto the ancient slabs of the terrace in a great rectangle the color of honey. Beyond it, autumn lies in wait, chilly and damp. I can just see the ivy-clad banisters of the Grand Staircase starting their descent into the garden and the stone arms of a nymph holding out a mossy basket of primroses, the rest of the statue lost to darkness. I pause to light my lantern, and now my hands begin to shake. It takes four tries and a burn on my finger before a tiny wild flame careens into being.
The lantern lit, I linger in the golden doorway for yet another minute. The night before me smells of leaves and rain-and something else, too, a troubling yet exciting smell I fail to recognize. The palace at my back smells of all things small and familiar-candle wax, cakes, parquet polish. This is all I know, all I have known for thirteen long years-thirteen and a half, to be precise-and I feel sudden fear at the thought of walking away. Then I notice my shadow lying on the ground, and the shadow is dark within the light, cut from the same cloth as the night beyond. All at once I say to myself: Oh look, my shadow is growing impatient with me, it wants to go home to its own kind. And somehow this poor little jest gives me courage, so I draw the cloak tight against the chill and push the doors closed behind me. They come together with a dull, heavy thud, like some massive volume slammed shut when the story is over.
The brilliant light is extinguished at my feet.
I am halfway down the stairs when the chiming from the clocktower overtakes me. At the first stroke, a swarm of memories dive after me like shrill, sharp-toothed bats. I cannot let them catch me, so I walk fast, faster still, then break into a run. I skip over steps, slip on stones, slide on leaves, trip over roots, until the palace is only a pale haze of lights shimmering behind me, until the rain-splashed park with its cupids and fountains falls behind as well, and, at last, I am through the gates.
The rutted road stretches before me, black fields on both sides.
I run. My lantern beats against my thigh, my pouch beats against my hip, my heart beats against my chest. Winds pick themselves off the ground in my panting wake, shake themselves off like enormous gray wolves, and lope after me howling. Their ferocity makes me feel brave. Side by side with the winds, I run all the way to the crossroads.
The witch is waiting for me, her cauldron already smoking.
Closer Still to the Beginning of the End
The world is black and red-black of the night, red of the fire, black of the cauldron, red of the potion. The witch, all warts and hook nose, her eyes gleaming from within the sinister cave of her cowl, her fingers dark and agile like spiders, lurches around the cauldron in a jagged jig, flinging pellets and powders into the bubbling brew, muttering under her nose: "One horn of a poisonous toad. A pair of wings from an unhatched death's-head moth. Eyeballs of a blind three-eyed newt. Four ground claws of a lame baby dragon. Five scales of a wish-granting pike . . ."
At midnight, the crossroads is a place where the skin of the world has worn thin, and great underground powers are pressing against it: a place of disorder and flux, an in-between place at an in-between hour. Untamed shadows crowd upon it from all sides, low clouds threaten rain, and the prowling pack of winds that have followed me here stalk it on heavy gray paws. Whenever one of the winds throws back its grizzly head and howls, dead grasses rustle in abandoned fields, and flames under the cauldron waver wildly. I wind the cloak tighter about myself. My courage, such as it was, has seeped away, little by little, until I feel trapped in an ugly dream from which I ache to wake up in my blue-and-white bedroom overlooking the park, with my collection of porcelain poodles lining the mantelpiece and the night kept at bay behind the lace of the curtains-yet I stay where I am, and the winds keep on howling and the frightful old woman goes on reciting her lists of strange poisons that fill me with dread.
"Nine tails of rats that met lonely and violent ends. Ten coals from the hearth of a freshly hanged strangler. Eleven drops of the essence of insomnia. Twelve words of venom that broke a woman's heart. Thirteen lies that tore apart a kingdom. And, for the crowning touch . . ."
Her mumbling grows too low to hear as she drops the final ingredient into the potion. When she looks up, her cowl has fallen back, and the pupils in her deep-set eyes are two slits of molten fire.
"Your turn now, girlie." Her voice is a cackle. "First order of business, a treasured piece of your childhood."
My hands unsteady, I loosen the pouch, reach for the dried nosegay of forget-me-nots from my mother's garden, tied with her hair ribbon, and hand it to the witch without speaking. She flicks it into the cauldron. As I watch the faded petals become consumed by the boiling turmoil, a dull old sorrow cuts my heart.
"And a smidgen of your blood. No need to get all pale and wide-eyed, duckie, it'll be but a little prick, I'm sure you know all about those, most princes sport them . . . There, all over now."
My ring finger stings where she has pierced it with a rusty pin, but her touch is surprisingly gentle. She squeezes one drop into the cauldron, and it falls with slow gravity, much heavier than a single drop of blood has any right to be.
"And the nails of your husband's killing hand? Good, good. And now, his portrait. You did remember, dearie, it must be the most recent one you've got?"
I nod, my mouth too parched to speak. The witch does not know who I am. I came to her cave an anonymous petitioner, a wronged woman without a name, common as tears, plain as despair-and I myself am common indeed, but my lot is far from it. I fumble in the folds of my gold-tasseled pouch, pull out the locket. The initial R on the lid is inlaid with rubies, and as the light of the greedy flames falls upon the stones, it looks as if I have trapped a rivulet of fire in the palm of my trembling hand. The witch's breath rasps in her throat, and when I see the hungry curve of her mouth, I am seized by the cowardly urge to close my fingers tight over the locket's secret and cry that it was all a misunderstanding, an honest mistake, that I meant none of it-then run, run with my husband's fate, with my old life, safe in the plush velvet nest at my hip, run all the way back to the palace.
It comes to me then that I always think "palace"-I never think "home."
"Here," I say, and click the locket open.
We look at him together.
The night is black and the fire unsteady, but even in the vacillating of shadows there is no denying how handsome, how incredibly handsome, he is. The strong lines of these cheekbones, the chiseled jaw, the easy set of his not-quite-smiling, not-quite-serious lips, the flight of the proud eyebrows, dark and glossy like strips of luxurious fur, over these narrowed blue eyes-so radiant is he with beauty, in fact, that the glinting circlet of gold in his chestnut curls seems merely an afterthought. The witch lets out a whistle, and her eyes jerk away from the locket and swoop onto my face.
My husband's most recent portrait was done at his coronation.
"Well, now," says the witch, "this is quite unexpected." Her tone is dry and businesslike, all traces of cackling gone, her words stiffly formal, no more "girlies" or "dearies." "It appears that someone was withholding vital information. Had I known who your husband was, madam, my terms would have been different. Queens do not pay in trifles like sapphire brooches. Queens pay in things of true value-their firstborn child or their youth or their voice. Surely you know the rules?"