In effect, you marry him because of the jam.
You’re not sure when jam took on such symbolism for you, but it seems to sum up everything that has gone wrong in your life, and everything your family has been reduced to.
Before – before what your mother calls the ‘little mishap’ (in public) and the ‘absolute fucking disaster, I don’t know how your father can even show his face to us after doing this to us’ (in private) – you hadn’t really thought much about jam. You liked it, of course, for it’s difficult to dislike, you think, but you hadn’t really reflected on it. Sometimes – and it pains you to think of it now – you hadn’t had jam at all with your morning toast. You’d just decided on butter, and lots of it, and passed by the sparkling dishes containing the inevitable six or seven varieties of preserves without even a quaver of doubt.
But in the mornings since your father’s bankruptcy – since the sale of your large, comfortable home with its large, comfortable grounds and pointless but much-loved folly – every little jibe from your former friends, and every little moment of embarrassment and shame and the dreadful frustration of making do, seemed to be embodied in the jam. For, in the new, rented house, which is never warm and where you never have a moment to yourself because it’s poky, and you have six sisters, and the floorboards creak, and something groans at night and good God you hope it’s only the wind – in this new, rented house, mornings invariably start with cheap, white bread that tastes of cotton wool; cheap, violently yellow margarine; and cheap, lurid strawberry jam, with seeds so hard you’d swear an oath they were made of wood.
To you it is, somehow, the final indignity.
So when he whispers in your ear, half-teasing but somehow serious, that if you promise to marry him, he’ll serve you preserves each morning that would make Titania, Queen of the Fairies, green as grass with envy, you smile and laugh and tell him you accept his offer.
To think you sold yourself for so little.
But it was you – out of all your sisters – who was chosen to go to the party, so you were drunk with all the ambition they could feed you with before the party that fateful night . . .
They curl your hair, and leave it down – so long it skims your seat. They paint you in soft, deceptive colours. They drape you with sparkles that would fool no woman but might just fool a man. They leave your feet bare, and ring your toes, so you feel both wanton and free, like a forest nymph dressed up to be a princess.
By the time you enter the ball, you are already drunk. Not on alcohol, for you cannot afford such luxuries, but each sharp, shallow breath leaves your blood fizzing, and you remember you have not eaten for hours – days. You are cold – and hot – and everything is unnaturally bright and loud and wondrous.
When you see him, you laugh, for you have heard that he is middle-aged and ugly; that he has married three times – and three times lost his wife abroad. You have heard that he is richer than royalty. Your mother has heard more tales, you are sure, for she cried when she put you in the chauffeured car this evening, although she tried to hide it, and you know she hopes – and fears – that you will catch this man’s eye and restore your family’s fortunes at the expense of your own happiness.
When you see him, you laugh – and you thrill, electrocuted, sparked, jump-started, when he catches your eye, and when he smiles back the room tips and shifts, all time crystalising as he fixes you in place.
His long, fine hair, you notice, when he draws your arm under his, pressing a glass of rich, red liquid into your hand, is not quite black. There is an odd sheen to it, and when you drink you gag, the liquid warmer and saltier than you expected, and you feel for a moment as if you are choking.
But on a second sip you feel warm and invulnerable, and you only notice the next day that he must have taken you outside, into the garden and the rain, for the hem of your dress and the soles of your feet are dark and clumped with mud.
You think, on waking the next morning, that he proposed to you outside, but you cannot be sure. The evening seems to you as would a dream – disjointed and odd, a puzzle with pieces that cannot be matched. His hair was blue, bright blue, you think – but when you remember him, picture him in your head, describe him to your mother, your jealous, fearful sisters, you hear yourself call it ‘black’ and ‘rich’.
All you are sure of is that you tossed your long, long hair and laughed, and he slid his fingers round your corseted waist and promised you that you would eat strawberry, raspberry, blueberry. Whispered in your ear that the fairies themselves would be jealous of your sumptuous repasts. And although he barely touched you, you felt the heat rush through you, spike in your secret places, your breathing quick quick quick until you almost swooned with it.
And you wish that you’d thought about your family, and how your decision would save them. But your mouth watered, and you heard yourself say – clearly, firmly, as if you were in control of your limbs and your mind – that yes, you would marry him, you swore it, and when he finally kissed you he tasted sweet and strange and indescribably foreign.
You are too busy attempting to breathe to dwell on alternatives. They have laced you in a corset so tight you suspect it is not merely your waist they are trying to control. Your breaths are shallow, ineffective, and the world trembles in and out of focus. You cannot decide if you are happy; instead, you feel strange, and unsettled, and you wonder momentarily if you are going mad.
You are wearing a bridal gown so fine it can only have been bought by your intended – you do not care that this can only be bad luck, this thwarting, this perverting of tradition, for you cannot see how anything worse can happen to you than it already has – and when your father takes your elbow, to walk you down the aisle, you do not feel much of anything at all.
Your father is to give you away – although your mother has already done so, over and over again in the days prior to this. The lawyers drifted round the house in clouds, like desiccated corpses, and she signed her name to their armfuls of documents without reading.
You wonder, uneasily, why your intended was so keen to commit himself to you on so slight an acquaintance.
You wonder why the thought of him makes you weak, and troubled, and so hungry for something – you know not what – that you do not think you will ever be satisfied again.
And when he turns, and smiles – a curious, feral smile – as your feet tap tap tap over the gravestones that line the church floor, the place lit by candles, to banish the darkness of the winter afternoon outside, you finally wonder a curious thing: why are not more scared than you actually are.
When he kisses you in his bedroom, pushing you until the backs of your knees come up hard against the edge of his enormous four-poster bed, it is with fierce concentration, with overwhelming fervour.
He kisses you as if he wants to consume you.
You tremble as he sucks at your neck, so hard he will surely leave a bruise, and he barks out a laugh, his voice rough and harsh, when you break free to do the same to him.
“You wound me, my love,” he murmurs, and before you can take in a sharp breath at the possessive, sharp glint in his eyes he has a small jewel-handled knife in his hand and is pressing it between your breasts.
The only sound in the room, for a breathless moment, is the rending of fabric as he slices through silk, and corset cords, and silk again, and then rips his way through it all until you are laid bare.
You look down, fearful you will discover he has also sliced you in two, but your skin is whole, intact – and, instead, you shudder in anticipation of a different kind when he pushes you back on to the bed, dropping to his knees and pressing his face between your legs.
You pull hard on his hair – deep blue in the candlelight – as you reach your crescendo, and when he slides up to kiss you, you taste yourself, curiously warm and earthy, on his tongue.
When he enters you, he bites down on your neck so hard you feel sure he must have broken the skin – and he brings you to the brink again, mercilessly, on a wave of something that is closer to pain than pleasure.
After, the only thing you are sure of is that you feel weak and sick and sated, and when you close your eyes you are sucked down into sleep almost against your will, to dream of his bright, cruel eyes, staring you down as you shudder and die a little death all over again.
Each time you wash, you discover new bruises – bruises he has sucked to the surface, which you allowed him to do so. Encouraged him to do so. Sometimes he will allow you to bathe without him; sometimes he insists on washing you himself, caressing your body until you are crying for release.
You do not ask yourself why he brings you platter after platter of food, which he feeds you with his own hands, if you will let him, but he, himself, never seems to eat.
You do not ask yourself why the house has no mirrors.
You do not ask yourself many things. You merely take all he gives – which is, you soon learn, much less than you give him. Indeed, after a month, you know every curve of his tall, lean body, but you have barely exchanged more than a handful of words. Whenever you try and speak, he kisses you to silence, and it is more than you can do to resist.
“I will miss you,” you say. You are not sure if that is true. His presence somehow sucks the essence out of you; you long for space to breathe, to remember who you are and what you like.
You are still a little scared of him; perhaps more so than ever.
He smiles; at least, his lips curve into the form of a smile. “Here are the keys you will need,” he says, and he walks you through the endless corridors of his home – your home, you think, a little dazed – throwing open door after door, before locking them again. The rooms behind the doors are veiled with sheets and layered with dust.
You cannot comprehend why he wishes to live in a prison. You cannot comprehend how you have allowed yourself to live in this prison, without even realising it.
He leads you down a winding wooden staircase and pauses outside a door that you swear will lead to a dungeon. And hands you a key – and tells you that whatever you do, you must not enter this room, you must swear it.
“I promise,” you say, half a breath from horror, “but—”
He kisses the question out of you, and you sink down, drowning, into helplessness. And he takes you right there, right outside the forbidden room, the brick wall cold and clammy against your back.
After, he carries you back to his bed, where he lays you out like a banquet, and you are lost all over again. By the time you are able to recollect yourself, it is too late and he is gone.
Everything leads back to him. The glass of wine you drink at your solitary dinner, on the first evening by yourself, reminds of you the night he poured libations on your skin, his tongue following the rivers of liquid between your breasts, lingering in your belly button, and lapping between your legs. (The sheets, you recall, were red and wet, and you shuddered, half convinced he had murdered you.) When you brush your wet hair after your bath it reminds you of the time he coaxed you to wash and braid his hair, then spank him with the brush. (That time, you recall, his pale skin reddened, and when, to your dismay, a sharp bristle scratched his skin and drew forth a drop of blood, he came off without even being touched.)
You wander the corridors, later that night, unsure what to do with yourself. You unlock all the doors you can find, throwing the doors wide. You pull off the drapes, revealing mouldering antique furniture and sending up clouds of dust that makes you cough and cough. You resolve to bring life back to the house: you will get down on your hands and knees and scrub the floors yourself, if you have to.
You don’t quite dare to throw away the keys, but you resolve to do it when he returns.
I will not live in a prison, you think. I will not.
When your feet lead you to the basement, to that one, final locked door, you halt outside it. Something dark, and awful, lurks within it, you are certain. You press your ear against the damp chill of the wooden door and you hear the silence behind it, which is somehow vital. Alive.
Your heart flutters in your chest, like a caged bird that cannot get free.
You look down at the key in your hand – the key which he gave you, your odd, inhuman husband, in the same breath as he made you swear not to use it.
There is something perverse about that, about him.
You put the key back in your pocket. You will keep your promise. You do not enter.
But when you get back to your bedroom, you find that jewel-handled knife of which he is so fond, and you slip it in your pocket.
Just in case.
You pull out handfuls of keys and, never taking your eyes off his face, you throw them in the fireplace. It is a gesture.
“You did not—” he rasps, very low, and you are so furious that you interrupt.
“I will not be locked out of a room in my own home,” you say. Your fingers are curled so tightly around the key that when you release them you see an imprint of the shape in your flesh.
He takes the key from you as if he has caught you in the act of doing something awful. He looks it over. And his eyes flash with something so bright you are dazzled by it.
“You did not go in,” he says. His voice is odd. “You did not go in.”
“You asked me not to,” you reply. “But you will take me there right now, and you will open the door, and you will throw away the key. I will not be locked out of a room in my own home.”
You do not think you have ever been so angry as you are now. You think you never will be again.
Framed against a window, the light fading, he looks all angles and harsh lines, and somehow not quite right – like a drawing of a human by an artist who has been blind since birth. His hair glows blue; his eyes glow yellow, like a cat. It is at that moment that you come to two odd realisations: you are not entirely sure he is human. And you are not entirely sure you care.
But for all you are bewitched by him, you are not stupid. Your hand snakes down into your pocket, to check, and double-check, for the knife that lurks within it.
It is almost as if he knows. He smiles, so bright and fierce it burns you, and he takes you by the wrist, his grip ungentle, and pulls you down the corridor, down the stairs, down, down, into the inky, whispering blackness.
He fits the key into the lock and pushes the door open, but when you move to step within, he holds you back. His cheek is hard against your own, his arm an iron bar around your waist.
You stand there, locked together, and as your eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, you discover his vile, foul secret.
“What happened to your previous wives?” you whisper. You know now, you know it, but you cannot stop yourself.
“They went in,” he says, against your neck “although they had promised not to. And so they did not come out again.”
You look down, at the pit that opens beneath your feet just a step away. At the sad, dusty skeletons, who fell down, down, down, and who starved and faded and died, alone in the dark, because they did not keep their word.
I am married to a monster, you think.
Finally, you turn in his arms. His eyes glitter like jewels in the dark. You wonder how you ever thought he was human.
“They had a choice,” he whispers to you, his voice sinuous and hypnotic. “They simply chose ill. But their deaths were not a waste,” he adds, and there should be breath against your cheek, there should be, but there is not. “They fed me well enough, until the end.”
You open your mouth to speak – or perhaps to scream, you’re not entirely certain – but he slides his fingers from your waist and up to your shoulders and, in turn, the words on your tongue slide away.
Behind you is the pit. In front of you, a devil. You shiver, caught between two traps, and raise your chin.
I will not die afraid.
He laughs. Oh God, he laughs. And his teeth are as sharp as his eyes when he moves – hard, fast – and it is only when it is over that you realise he has closed the door, and locked it, and you are still alive.
“What say you, now you know my secret, wife?” he murmurs as he presses you against the door – a threat, a challenge. His skin burns, twin flames in his eyes. He is hard, and ready, against your stomach, his length an insistent press, even through the layers of fabric between you.
You meet his gaze. He is beautiful, you think. And oh, oh, how you hate him. Hate that, even now, you want him, with a force that terrifies you.
It will, you think, make it easier to do what you know must be done.
But for now, you lead him, unspeaking, to your bedroom. You take his knife, that jewel-handled thing, and slice open the front of your gown. Your breasts spill out, and you shiver, exposed, as his eyes fasten on your hardened nipples.
Before he can stop you – before you can stop yourself – you cut a slow, shallow line across your breast. Blood drops spring forth, dripping down your skin, soaking into your ruined gown.
He cannot look away. His gaze is so heavy it almost has weight, and soon he has closed the gap between you, and his mouth is on you, his tongue lapping at your skin eagerly, greedily. When he bites down, you are ready for it, but the rush of hot, spicy sensation that floods through you still overwhelms you, still spirals you down into dark, hot, awful depths from which you are no longer sure you have the willpower to extricate yourself.
After, when his skin drips, improbably, with sweat, and he lounges, sated, against you, he kisses you, and his saliva is metallic and strange.
And later, when he has fucked you for the third time that night, he slips the key round your neck on a fine gold chain. “You are the keeper of my secret,” he whispers. “My love, my one, my only.”
The key is cold against your skin, and it will, you think, rest there forever, even after you have taken it off.
Each time you think you will do it, you will put an end to this, he smiles at you, a taunting smile – and you see in his eyes that he is expecting it.
He begins, you think, to tease you. You wonder if means to goad you into it. If he wants to die.
Or wants an excuse to put an end to you both.
You find you cannot hate him; it would be like loathing the lion, which kills because it must.
This does not console you.
“How will you do it?” he wonders out loud, one evening.
He is looking particularly inhuman, you think: his skin taut and white over his hollow cheeks, and his fangs cutting minute slits in his lower lip where they rest. Last night, he confessed he could not bear to leave you for a minute, even though he must – and soon – and your breath caught, somewhere between your desire for freedom . . . and your desire for him.
Tonight, you have shackled him – wrist and ankle, both – to the bed. You did not ask, just did it, and he watched you languidly, his eyes hooded.
“I had thought to use poison,” you hear yourself say, and he smirks at you and blinks, ever so slowly, as if he is so relaxed that he could fall asleep at any moment.
(You have never seen him sleep. You do not even know if he can.)
Lying there, restrained, he seems no less powerful. You wonder what exactly you think you are doing.
“I fear that poison would not work,” he says, pleasantly. “Apologies, my sweet.”
You straddle him, opening the buttons of his snow-white, billowing shirt one by one.
“Holy water was another thing I had in mind,” you say, sliding the shirt apart and running your fingertips over his cold, hard flesh.
He moves under you, stretching gracefully like a cat, and purrs the words: “Go on.”
“I thought to drink it, then have you drink from me,” you say.
He laughs – a throaty chuckle. “Ingenious. But, alas, ineffectual.”
You pause, your hands at his belt buckle. “No?”
His smirk widens again. “I married you in a church, my love. Holy water holds no terror. Did you forget?”
He shifts again, and his long, blue-tinged hair fans across the pillow. He looks like sin.
“No,” he murmurs, his eyes sliding away from your face rest somewhere in the past. “All that you can think of has been attempted. Poison, sunlight, holy water. Indeed, all holy symbols.” His eyes snap back to yours. “Stabbing, staking.”
“Beheading?” you ask.
He laughs once more. “Oh yes, my dear one.” He pulls, very gently, against the restraints around his wrists. “Starvation is uncomfortable, but, alas, not fatal. And it does put me in such a very bad mood that I would not be fain to risk it, if I were you, my love.”
“Boredom might slay you,” you suggest, and he raises his hips helpfully as you shuffle off him, in a whirl of skirts, and slide his trousers and underthings down to his knees, leaving him exposed.
“Oh, surely that will never be an issue with you around,” he murmurs. “For is that a knife in your dress pocket, my dear one, or are you just pleased to see me?”
“If I rubbed the blade with garlic . . .?” you suggest.
He looks interested, rising on to his elbows to regard you. “Have you?”
You shake your head, and he sinks back with a sigh. “A shame,” he says, and his lips curve into a semblance of a smile. “It is a pleasurable burn . . .”
He watches with amusement as you slip off the bed and walk to the vanity table. You sit on the embroidered stool, and pour yourself a glass of wine, and regard him thoughtfully as you sip.
You are no longer sure if you would kill him, even if you could.
And later, as he writhes against you, the iron around his wrists biting livid bruises into his pallid skin, which bloom and fade and bloom again before your very eyes, you know you cannot.
You think he will be nervous that you will learn his little, everyday secrets – how he keeps you fed, and clothed, and watered – but the truths are mundane, and you find that when you come across the cheerful woman who delivers the eggs from the local farm, you cannot say anything other than: “Good morning.”
It would seem ludicrous, in daylight hours, to grab her wrist and say, urgently: “Save me! My husband is a vampire!”
She would think you mad, or worse.
Later, you tell him this, and he laughs, and you play with his hair and forget, for a moment or two, that these things you speak of are real, and not a mad, twisted dream.
“Daylight?” you ask, between kisses.
“Merely gives me sunburn,” he says languidly.
“Annoying, but not fatal.”
“Fire . . .”
His pupils flare, and for a moment you feel sick as you imagine him twisting, shrieking as the flames consume him.
“Oh, my dear,” he says, and when he smiles his teeth are very, very sharp, “I dare you to try.”
When you wake, he is gone, the restraints crumpled as if they were made of paper, and your bed is surrounded by piles of unlit church candles, like a taunt.
You have never been one to resist a challenge.
(You do not know where he goes. You do not know exactly what he does. You wonder if that makes you as bad as him.)
It does not take long, once the wheels are in motion, for the antique dealers to come down from London: they are champing at the bit. Soon, the rooms are empty, apart from the dust, but your bank account is full.
You have never had so much money in your life.
It does not take long, either, to splash the kerosene about.
When you toss the match in through the window, from a safe distance outside, the carpet catches alight with a satisfying whoomph.
You hope the unfortunate women within will rest in peace now, their bones purified by flames.
You think you will make a new home for yourself far away. Somewhere by the sea, where the air is fresh and tastes of salt.
You were rich before the building burned; once the insurance money comes through – and the life insurance for your poor, dead husband – you will be rich as Croesus.
You will be able to feast on expensive jams forever, you think, as you remember – so sharp it hurts – why you agreed to marry him in the first place. You smile at the thought, and laugh, but it is hysteria that bubbles through you, not joy.
You wonder what he will do when he returns to find his home a burned out shell and the human life he has built for himself in ruins.
“Hello, my dear,” he murmurs, taking your gloved hand in his and tilting his head towards the elegant coffin – which you have filled with chains, to mimic the weight of a body – that rests at the head of the church.
The vicar continues to speak solemnly about a good, honest man. A man who never really existed.
You sit very upright. You do not sag against your husband.
The effort nearly kills you.
“I am not certain that black is your colour,” he says as the sounds of a mournful hymn wash over you, and his lips quirk in that same old way, and you know that he is amused, rather than angry.
“If you would like me to eat your sisters, I would be happy to,” he adds politely, and you laugh – sharp and loud – and quickly bow your head down a little, as if you are sobbing, as if it is shock that makes you so inappropriate, rather than a strange, fizzing happiness that this monster, this murderer is by your side once more.
(Your sisters have already cornered you – the grieving widow – to beg for assistance with dresses, with jewels, with apartments, with box seats for the theatre, and all manner of necessities. They will die without these things, they say, so you must provide them. You must.)
“I’m so sorry,” you say, and you are surprised that you mean it, although your hand still tightens around the knife in your pocket, even now.
“Oh, my darling, please don’t be,” he replies, his tone amused, as if you are a small child who has performed an amusing trick. “I knew you would kill me eventually, and I confess myself to be glad that you have chosen this method. Though . . .” He sighs. It is a small, awful noise. “I cannot say it is entirely painless, my love. For there is one thing that can kill me,” he says, and he turns a little towards you and smiles, and for once it is a sad smile, a real one, and something breaks inside you that will never be fixed. “For real, this time. And I have brought it on myself. I could not resist you – and it has been my undoing, my sweet one.”
He places one hand, gently, on your stomach.
“Dhampir,” he murmurs. “Vampire killer. I would not stay, to watch you suffer as my fate unfolds,” he says, and he kisses you on the cheek, his lips dry and cold, and he leaves before you can stop him.
You cry so hard it is as if he is dead, for he is as good as dead to you, and your greedy family pat your shoulders and say there, there in hopes their kindness will make them richer than they already are.
You sit in your garden, overlooking the bay, after the birth, and your child gurgles and giggles, and as the light fades, the light catches his sparse black hair and brings out shades and glints of blue.