She has brought light back into my life.
I don’t mean that she is bright like the finest summer day; Sue’s time in the madhouse has made even her too dark for that, and my pen will never be accustomed to such pretty words.
No, I mean that even in the first precious hours after my Sue had returned to Briar, she threw open all the curtains in the house and I blinked my eyes against the sudden onslaught.
Still, the harshness of the sun shining into the home of my – our – her uncle brought with it the shadow of Sue, again. And I found myself more grateful than annoyed.
When the evening sets, Sue takes it upon herself to light all the lamps, like the maid she used to be. It bothers me; there is only one way I want Sue beneath me, and blind servitude is not it any longer.
“Ain’t no one else to do it, Maud,” and I concede she’s right, before asking her if she thinks we ought to at least have one more person, because even though Sue can passably cook and I can help her clean, the house is big, even with the Inkers to help. Sue moves quickly to start the fires, if not softly, as usual, but it still takes far too long to warm up in the night.
And so, that is how Dainty came to live with us.
I think Dainty knows, just by the way she smiles at us, but she never says anything. I think she wants more than anything to see Sue happy. Something we have in common, then.
I sit at the desk with smudged fingers and Sue traces her letters out, ever more confident with each passing day, on the couch next to me.
“What you writin’?”
I don’t look up from the page that curls just slightly at one edge like my smile.
She’s learning to read from simple books, children’s stories about manners and puppies. It makes my chest hurt to think that had things been different, she might have had a proper education at her mother’s knee, learning how to say please and thank you.
(I’ve taught her how to say those words, but my tutorials are decidedly less than proper.)
I don’t let her read my stories. I may defile her with my lips, my tongue and my fingers, but I’ve already ruined Sue in many ways with my words – and alternately, my silence – I will be damned if she learns about how he thrusts his turgid sword of manhood into her quivering wetness.
But she knows. Yes, she knows, and her eyes are uncertain as she regards me.
“Nothing different this time, then?”
“The scenery and… methods… are different, but other than that, no.”
The men like a certain script, and I am adept at following it. The characters don’t matter – dandy boys with streetwise pickpockets; shy virgins fucked into voracious whores; or bright young maids punished to tears by a mistress armed with a birch. What does matter is that no filth is left unexplored, no orifice left unplundered, no debauchery left to rot in the confines of the mind. The plot may change; the desire never does.
Sue nods and goes back to her tracing; my pen scratches against the paper and makes watery sounds in the ink. Moments later, I look up when Sue’s voice finds me again.
“Why don’t you write somethin’ different?”
My brow furrows at her; maybe she’s been sneaking some of the books from the shelves, giving herself lessons. It repulses me, the thought of it, but the expression on her face is one of innocent curiosity; she’d never imagine debasing herself unless I coax her into it.
“And what would you have me write, sweet?”
Terms of endearment aren’t new to us, really; they felt ugly and foreign to me at first until I saw the way that Sue’s cheeks pinked at them, as they do now. I’ve ended up using “sweet” as if it were punctuation, and if Sue ever tires of it, she doesn’t tell me. I think she wouldn’t tire of it anyway.
Sue gives a shrug, her blue-clad shoulder rising and falling with the motion. She prefers simpler clothes, even if I do order them from London, and I prefer not having layers of buttons and petticoats keeping me away from my prize when we slip into our bedchamber at night.
“Can’t you write a story that… ain’t got all that in it?”
I’ve sold three books since Sue has come back to me. I write with a religiousness bordering on zealotry, and submit my torrid words under a male name. The fellow at the publishing house thinks I am but a secretary handing over pages of pornography on behalf of her employer. Likely he suspects I’m my employer’s muse, or the subject upon which he experiments. They can think what they will; the money lets us live reasonably beyond Sue’s inheritance, and my name isn’t the only secret I keep.
I lay the pen down, taking my cramped hand in the other and kneading its fingers. Sue shakes her head and shifts forward on the couch to do it herself, raising my knuckles to her lips and kissing gently.
“Like a knight with a princess,” she says.
I don’t want to laugh; still, I must turn away to hide the smile. Sue senses it, and our hands drop to her lap. When I look again, her eyes are shimmery.
“Fairy tales,” I say, but gently. Each day with her, I find I can conjure up even more kindness than I had the day before. It is as if she is using me as a canvas to write her own book with softest ink.
She wants fairy tales, the innocent lass. She’s not innocent in the ways of pain, or of love; no, she’s far too good at “setting me off” for me to ever think she’s innocent. But after all, she wants fairy tales, stories where love wins out. She wants her happy ending, which I am determined to give to her in life, even if I cannot do it in my stories.
“I’m afraid it might start out as a fairy tale, sweet, and wind up altogether different.”
She knows what I mean, her eyes wise beyond her years, and Sue nods. She’s quiet for a moment.
Then, “Do you s’pose he’d leave his armor on?”
“Sue!” I’ve heard it all – spoken it all aloud – yet still my mouth drops open, more for the shock of Sue thinking about such things. (I don’t tell her how it gives me the tiniest ink stain of an idea for my next story.)
“What? I just meant it’d probably hurt the lady, you know.”
I stare at her for a long minute, then shake my head, unable to keep from smiling at her even though I don’t like the idea of Sue thinking such things.
“Sometimes I just don’t know how to read you.”
She smirks, that devilish expression that makes my heart quicken under the fabric of my cream-colored dress. My mourning for my “uncle” had been over before he’d even died, really, the same with that wretched husband. As soon as was morally fashionable, Sue had shed the black from me and welcomed me back to the living.
And ever with her I shall stay, ended one of my books, before Sue had even returned.
“Maybe I like t’keep you guessing,” she says.
“Oh, you do that,” I agree, taking up my pen again and looking down at my work, before I sneak a last glance at her and wink. “In more ways than one.”
She takes me to bed that night, and as her lips and tongue and fingers are everywhere on me, I hear her words over my moans.
Why don’t I write something different?
But I must make a living somehow, don’t I?
She brings me up and over the edge, and I am more than happy to return the favor. When she falls asleep in my arms, I close my eyes and dream of a maiden disguised as a knight, slaying a dragon to save a rather undeserving princess.
We weren’t dreaming, were we?
Sue begins to use some of her money to improve Briar. We have discussed leaving here, more than once, but she knows as well as I do that our lives are far too entwined in these walls for us to leave it behind. She buys new bed linens; new lighter, airier curtains; better furniture. She wants to take that damned board out of the floor in the study and the row we have over it lasts two nights. That second night she comes back to me from the guest room, contrite and apologetic as always. She says we can keep the board; by the time I am spent and breathless underneath her I say that she can have whatever she wants, anything, so long as we never spend another night apart.
She rips it up herself, with a bit of unnecessary gusto that makes me laugh.
Gradually, the house becomes more like our home. We hire more people to tend to its upkeep, and there’s a fair thrum of noise that I’ve never heard before. I find that I like it, and Sue smiles and reaches for my hand all the time as if she knows exactly what I am thinking.
I take to writing elsewhere than just the study; Sue sleeps next to me on the grass in the garden while I write the tawdriest of thoughts. The angel she is battles quite often with the devil that drives my hand, and it’s a shock to me when one day, the angel wins.
A few weeks later, she comes to me bearing tea and some warm pastries; I realize with a start that I’ve forgotten to eat for hours.
“I’m sorry,” I say automatically.
Usually we end up eating in the kitchen; it’s far more pleasant than the dining room, even with Sue’s painstakingly beautiful modifications. For a girl not used to finery, she seems to have been born to it.
“Oh, I know,” she says, about the time my stomach growls, and she grins at me. “Honestly, miss, what would y’do without me to watch over you?”
She slips into her honorifics when she teases, when she’s wanting me to take the lead in our bed, or whenever, really. It’s as if she’s never quite used to calling me by my name, as if she’s never fully convinced that I can take care of myself. I haven’t given her any reason to think otherwise, to be honest.
“Starve,” I point out.
“Right about that one,” she says.
I move the papers and inkstand to one side of my desk; she sets down the tray and I reach up to capture her cheek in my hand.
“Darling,” I say fervently, something I have never called her before today. She’s taken aback with pleasure, her cheeks turning pink to the tips of her ears, and I am ready to call her that, only that, for the rest of our lives.
“Come sit on the couch with me,” she murmurs, pressing her lips against mine, and I acquiesce.
She serves me tea; I feed her bits of pastry which makes her laugh and embarrasses her. Dainty passes by and sees us; she closes the door to the study with a smile. The other servants know us only as cherished “cousins”; Dainty guards our secret fiercely. She’s far more loyal to Sue than me, I know, but that’s all right.
With the pastry gone and the tea cooling, Sue leans against me with a sound of protest as I reach for a sheet of paper on the desk.
“Hush, you,” I scold, and kiss her forehead.
I am nervous suddenly, as I look down at the beginning of the story in my hand.
“I only… wanted you to read something.”
Sue sits up, a sudden motion that almost threatens to upend the cup of tea she still holds. I roll my eyes and replace it with my writing.
She doesn’t look at it, preferring instead to stare at me with confusion in her eyes.
“Read it? But you don’t want me to r—“
“It’s something different,” I assure her, and I smile to conceal just how my veins are twisted up within me in fear.
Bellies and bottoms and wet and gasp is familiar to me.
What I have written, this – love – is not.
“What’s it about?” Sue asks, still not looking anywhere but at me.
It is unnerving.
The sun is slipping from our room now, pale blues and whites and a touch of peach here and there giving way to darker shades. The lamps will need lighting soon; still Sue does not move.
“It’s about you.”
“But they all are then?”
That’s what I’d told her. How I want her. How I love her.
But I shake my head.
“Different, Sue. Read it?”
She finally looks down at the sheet in her hand, then.
“’There were… over…’”
I can see my uncle – our uncle – in my mind’s eye, towering over me, glaring. I fist my hand in Sue’s skirt. She pauses and looks at me in concern, but I nod at her to continue.
“’… one hun… hun…’”
“’… one hundred candle… candlesticks…”
Gentleman grabs my arm; I can still feel his fingers pricking against my skin. The light is nearly gone now as I shift closer to Sue. She nuzzles her cheek against the top of my head before she goes on.
“’… one hundred candlesticks… in my uncle’s house.’ I’m not sure I wanna read anymore, Maud.”
“Please,” I ask her.
I hear a door open and close in the distance. I see Sue standing in front of me as I read a letter.
“’… When she came… came to me…’”
When she came to me, everything changed.
“’… it was… as if…’”
Steps sound noisily in the hall.
Oh, no, softly, softly!
No. As noisily as you want. I want to hear you, sweet.
“’… it was as if every candle… even those never… lit before….’”
In the back of my mind, a figure moves from lamp to lamp, raising each to brilliant, moving light.
“… even those never lit before… sud—suddenly flamed… all at once.’”
There were over one hundred candlesticks in my uncle’s house. When she came to me, it was as if every candle, even those never lit before, suddenly flamed all at once.
Sue stops and looks at me. Her eyes are shimmering again. I wonder if I will ever be able to raise something other than tears in this girl’s eyes, but at least, this time and so many others, they are happy ones.
“It’s about me?” she asks, and I surge forward to kiss her.
“Us,” I correct her.
There’s a look on her face that moves past adoration; she doesn’t regard me as she used to, as if I am some mysterious, untouchable mistress that she can peel away only in minute layers. I should be upset that this look speaks of Sue growing older, of learning even more about the world than even Lant Street could have taught her.
She doesn’t look on me like a child might look at love. I realize – she doesn’t want fairy tales anymore.
She wants this. She wants us. I do, too.
Through my hand, she writes something different.
The sheet slips from her hand as we join ours together; I no longer care if pages are out of order.
We’ll put the story right again.