In the bloody light of the dying sun He trudged home, His shadow stretching tall and heavy, flowing down the empty cobbles towards His home. All through the Town and all through the quiet streets no Neighbour greeted one another, no one spoke. If He caught another’s eye both would avert their gaze. All those kind Citizens stunk of cloying soot, all those upright Burghers’ ears rung with screams, all those good Neighbours’ stomachs rumbled for roasted meat.
He found His home where He had left it, as He had left it. Cold and empty. The key ground in the lock, tumblers aligning, hinges screaming. Ducking under the low lintel He slunk off His coat, deciding to never wear it again, that the stink would never leave its rich fabric even if He couldn’t smell the smoke on it no longer. He dumped it over a rough and ancient dining chair, stepping out of the front room into the equally tiny kitchen; the warped wooden floorboards changing to cracked slate tiling the only demarcation between the rooms.
The iron oven sat there. Black and heavy and cold and dominating its dark corner.
His stomach growled as He gave up on His dinner.
You could feel that gut stabbing misery cling to Him like a curse as He moved around His modest little personal hell: cold, quiet, dust motes catching the last rays of the sun nothing but will-o-wisps in a swamp.
He flopped on to His ragged bed in His darkening home and fought tooth and nail for sleep to take Him.
And the warped floorboards fell away beneath Him, alone and falling as architecture seeped up around Him in right angles, His home cracking out past its physical boundaries, until finally those pilasters and plastered walls jailed Him with all His neighbours.
The Town’s entire population must have turned out for the spectacle, and had squeezed into the town hall, doubling as the scene of the little trial. You could see those familiar faces all around you: secret looks, quiet whispers, open accusations, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, the innocent and the damned, and the beautiful girl with the long raven hair right in the middle of it all with that proud, cold glare.
It could sear right through you, it could count your sins and forgive them, it could throw you away or it could demand your love. She could look right in to you.
Up there, up there beneath the town hall’s podium, looking down at all Her accusers, standing there free and covered in chains, She was absolutely beautiful. It was an absolute, as much as one plus one was two, She was beautiful to everyone and you.
And it just made us so much uglier.
A travelling justice reigned, supercilious, absolute faith in his righteousness, he kept a tally of all the men he had sent to the gallows and thought of it as an indulgence. The gossips had lined up, and the men nodded to their wives, and the wives sharpened their knives. The parish priest smiled on magnanimously, unconcerned with earthly matters, he was too busy deciding on the night’s choir boy.
She lifted Her delicately pointed chin to Her inquisitor.
“Jeanne is your name?”
Her mother had died giving birth to Her, Her father was found dead in the river last year.
She had none. She had rejected many suitors as unsuitable. The men assembled looked on in lust, secretly wondering whom had had a taste of that, shamed themselves, looked edgewise at their wives.
“It is the court’s understanding that you are betrothed to the Lord of the local manor?”
She supposed so, that was what She had been told. The women tightened their jaws, sneering. You heard a quiet voice say “whore” behind you, they eyed their husbands and their sons and that handsome young Lord, standing slightly apart from the townsfolk, awkward, looking out of place in the poorly lit hall.
“Do you understand what kind of situation you are in woman? Answer the court’s questions properly.”
She had been told that Her father had betrothed Her to the Lord, however She had never seen any paper agreement, nor could She ask Her father who had been found dead in the river that very day.
The Lord stood, yelling more to the court than to Jeanne whom he wouldn’t look upon.
“I won’t be accused of such impropriety by a woman who stands accused of such a cri—”
“A woman, my Lord? She is your betrothed. You stand accused of nothing. Sit …please. The betrothal has been ratified by a witness according to this Town’s register, so we’ll put that matter aside. Woman, your profession?”
She ran Her father’s orchid, overseeing work from a townhouse. Yes, by Herself, She could read and write and had helped Her father for years, She required no help. No, She had other means, namely a boarder in Her townhouse, a young woman She considered a close friend.
She was not aware of the exact accusation levelled against Her.
“Witchcraft. Last week, the 24th of October of this year, you are accused of having had a secret rendezvous with dark powers, possessed carnal knowledge of said power, and employed your cat as a familiar. It is levelled that you yourself killed your father by way of magic dark and evil, seduced the men of the village, and caused misfortune to befall the women of this good village. How do you plead?”
Of course She was not guilty of these baseless accusations. It was frankly insulting that She should be accused of parricide. She would like to face Her accusers, and with a quiet, sad sneer She added: the men She had supposedly seduced. Grips tightened, men shuffled.
“In good time, the court calls the first witness.”
The witness took the stand and laid her hand against the bible and swore to tell the truth.
And Jeanne looked as if the world had fallen down around Her. For the first time it seemed that the day’s events had reached Her, that the chains were felt around Her delicate wrists. It was then that Her quiet pride turned into a beautiful resignation. It was Her best friend, Her Boarder who had taken the stand with a flick of her blonde head.
The Boarder wasted no time in condemning her friend.
She alleged Jeanne had stolen out of Her house on the night of the 24th, and not for the first time. She suspected that Jeanne was leaving for some kind of tryst. Jeanne was alleged to wear men’s clothing in Her home, for receiving male visitors, and talking in tongues to Her cat.
The Lord readily denied that She was meeting with him in secret to indulge in premarital intercourse. The men grinned. Neither Lord, nor Boarder could look each other, or Jeanne, in the eye.
The justice called for any witness to come forward in Jeanne’s defence, for anyone to provide Her an alibi. To save Her from the bleak fate ahead.
And Jeanne turned.
And Jeanne looked you dead in the eye.
And you woke screaming in your bed.
A great sucking breath only inhaled a lung full of ash and burning embers, grey flecks falling down, fire licking up at your feet. Screaming, coughing and desperate for breath, vomit erupts from your nose as you crash to the cold hardwood floor. The acrid stink of bile, the burning in His sinuses, the thunderous silence after a scream, thats all that was left of the soot and the flame.
Quiet laughter from nowhere known sent a shiver down His spine, a slowly dragging razor through your skin.
And He knelt there in His vomit, staring at His darkening ceiling and begging for forgiveness.
The gas lamp next to His bed lit. Then died as the laughter passed by.
The candles on his dining table lit and blew out with the laughter on the wind.
The stove stoked a strangled flame, that collapsed in smoke with the end of that quiet laughter.
His fireplace exploded.
He begged still.
Out of the conflagration that now licked at His ceiling, that kissed at His feet, that sucked at His breath, that burst from every surface, that turned His home into a crematorium, out of that fire materialised Jeanne, even more beautiful than before. Skin once the colour of fresh snow now burned white hot, raven black hair burned red, clad in flame, and beneath her bold, smouldering brows glowed her gaze; truly terrible to behold, whites turned black, beautiful green consumed by crimson.
Her incandescent pupils transfixed you with their fire: false associations, empty illusions, perfect symbols, secret meanings burning.
And then Jeanne spoke, and She unspoke, and as She unspoke She unravelled every word in your head and forced you to feel with your soul every syllable, even as all meaning melted and you were left deaf to mortal men.
And She said:
Why are you apologising so? For being a coward? For not speaking up for me, for yourself? Well, if you had, you would’ve been executed with me for adultery… Yet if you can be a coward, I can be selfish and wish to die with the one I had loved so.
His fists tightened till His knuckles cracked. His home charred, and what was dead gained a pale mockery of life, warped wood shifting, grinding, undulating around Him. Soot and smoke blackened His ceiling, His walls, and seemed to push them away until even the flame was lost to sight. His writhing wooden floor grew fresh, dead limbs, creaking up into the darkness, enwreathed in a fire that could not consume those flame trees. Grey ash and smoldering paper fell to earth as snow, piling up in great drifts that collapsed into dust, and He was left there with Jeanne, His fireplace, His bed, and an infinite dark forest burning down around Him.
I loved you. I loved you in your silence and your cowardice. I loved you as you failed your test of faith. I loved you as I burned, I loved you as you watched. I loved you as I died. I love you now. And I will love you…
“How can you still… Love me? How can you forgive me?”
…Forgive you? Forgive you. No. I have not forgiven you your sins, nor shall I ever. You misunderstand me. I loved you as I scorned St. Peter. I loved you as I kissed the Devil’s ring. I loved you even as I gained that which I was burned for. I traded my soul for yours, and you shall be mine to love, and only mine. Death will not do us part my love, all that is left is to consummate our marriage in an unholy irony, my love.
And a fresh gout of flame erupted from His lonely fireplace, followed by the stench of death, rot and brimstone. And as the flame licked at the stonework and the mantle, even as the wrought iron grate glowed white hot and convulsed into twisted metal, inside it the ash swirled, collected, built up, solidified and crackled. Fire blackened bones snapped back whole and a skeletal foot clad in a carbon sheen stepped forth from the furnace, gaining death blue, charred flesh. Slowly Jeanne’s mortal remains staggered back in to this world as if the clarion call for the resurrection had been sounded in Heaven.
He backed away from the corpse, stinking, shattered, and shambling. Fire tightened tendons loosening, cauterised wounds knitting together, dead flesh licking up her bones. He put the bed between Himself and the burned body, feet slipping in the bone white ash, before He felt a burning at His back.
How unkind, can’t you see how much my body needs you, my love? You held me so tightly that night, this will be so much the sweeter. Here I’ll help you onto the bed, my love.
And She did. Delicate, incendiary fingers sliding through your flesh, lava soft palms running down your bones. Muscles relaxing from the heat, swelling with blood, tendons snapping, cracking into the charcoal rigor-mortis of the burnt cadaver, all as He was gently lifted and set down upon the bed; Her burning hands searing His flesh and setting His soul ablaze as His clothes caught fire and burned off His frame.
Her unearthly corpse reached the foot of the bed. You couldn’t turn away even as that cooked and pitiful mockery of beauty regained Her breasts, stitching upon Her black, cracked ribs. Her ivory black skull loomed towards your face even as the flesh grew back, you could feel Her weight shifting on your bed, could feel Her grow ever heavier.
Her bare, black, parted teeth cracked against your lips, splitting, metallic iron blood lingered and wiped away by a cold, clammy, carrion-tongue, slipping its way into you, both foreign and wrong. The kiss lasting for aeons.
Jeanne wrap’t Her arms ’round her corpse’s neck, dragging it away from the frozen Man, its tongue slipping from His lips.
Hey now, your lips will grow back strangely if you keep that up… Look my love, look at our wedding dress.
Look He did.
Ash was Her veil, ash was Her dress, ash was Her lingerie. A burnt blushing bride. Even as She was, you could see how deadly pretty Jeanne was in life, in that sad mockery of a marrital gown.
And the inexorable pressure at your back pushed you down, burning breasts and still heart heaving, inching you towards that cadaver with a glacial certainty. Feather soft charcoal cloth fell away from Jeanne’s body as it limply fell to the mattress, icy flesh bared, chars and scars and supple, dead skin, the purple ligatures of her bonds clear; the blanket already smouldering beneath the lovers.
Look, look, there where we were connected but a week ago is already ready for you. This marriage shall be consummated tonight, as all must be, my love, my love, my love…
Blood turning to plasma in your veins, flexors, tensors, turning to scar, tendons brittle pulled like marionette strings, you pushed the slight cadaver down, cold flesh giving under your grip, even as Jeanne forced your body to obey her need, to consummate.
Soothing on His burning body, the corpse slid its freezing thighs up His legs, locking around His waist, unfocused, glazed eyes locking on yours.
Her burning breasts once again pressed against Him, burning charcoal nubs, faint mockeries of nipples dragging down His back. Hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, disappearing through your flesh, only for those fine fingers to wrap around your cock, play with your filling balls, to force you inside Her cold body and giving flesh in turn.
And Her beautiful, cold face slackened in pleasure, a mute moan, Her last tears pooling at Her thick lashes, full lips mouthing your name.
And Jeanne forced you to pick up the pace.
Letting His head fall to Her body’s neck, letting Him fill His senses with the smoke, roasted flesh, burnt hair and the lingering fingers of death on Her. Letting Her icy body wrap its arms about His shoulders, letting it press its breasts against His thundering chest, letting it force His hips against its own with its legs, a silent unending wail.
And Jeanne knew you were close. Jeanne knew, and she cooed her love in your ear. Jeanne knew, and She wrapt Her ghostly, burning fingers about you, through your living muscle and Her dead sex, kneading you to your edge as Her corpse’s cold flesh twisted about you.
And you knew when you hit the peak.
All at once the inferno roared around the intertwined lovers, His body screamed with Her fire, as it mixed with His own, white hot. White hot inside His skull. White hot inside His balls. White hot raging through Him, and white hot burning into that dead hollow.
Smoke black lungs screamed for breath, dissolute flesh burned with unlife, barren womb bathed in could-be-life, and Jeanne’s glazed eyes sparked, and cracked and took on the burning brilliance of cold, long dead stars.
And She smiled at you.
Lifting up off the bed, wrapping Her warm arms about you, Her skin blushing in the heat, Her black and scarlet hair pulled at by a permanent updraft, draped in black lace dusted white with ash, smoldering red at its edges. Her living beauty trumped by an unearthly power, so that to look at Her was to fear Her, and to love Her, to need Her, and gazing upon Her He was lost forever to Her loving embrace.
Pulling Him with Her as She floated away from their marital bed, blessing Him with warm kisses and avowals of love, She dragged Him in Her wake, dragged Him up, up to His feet, until She slipped away brushing a long, hot finger against His cheek.
The ash softly finished falling. The wood stopped writhing. The branches knit together. The flames guttered out. The smoke began to clear.
And they were together in His room once again.
Do you love me?
“I love you.”
As I burned, will you?
“Only for you.”
Jeanne’s perfect lips drew back into a perfect smile as Her eyes burned. And as She smiled, as Her eyes burned, the fireplace lit for the final time.
Then, my love, our happy matrimony awaits…
From the flames emerged a pair of pink, fleshy feet, waist height and sliding further into His small abode. Naked legs bound in heavy chains followed, along with the body the appendages belonged to, in a fascinating birth from the flame.
The iron chain cut deep into the woman’s flesh, her sex obvious even more so after her breasts had cleared the fireplace.
Finally the floating, naked woman’s shoulders slid past the curtain of flame.
Dressed as a gondolier, Jeanne’s fat tabby cat stood upright on the woman’s head, and polled the writhing, heaving, sobbing, clinking, prisoner clear of the fire. Terror racked her chained, gagged body; she tossed her singed, smoking, ashy blonde hair. For she had recognised Jeanne.
Displaying a commendable feat of dexterity, the cat doffed its straw hat, bowed low, and smiled charmingly at its masters as it nonchalantly strolled up the violently struggling prisoner, settling down at the woman’s feet for the next leg of the journey, pole in paw.
Jeanne lit down upon the ground gracefully, padding barefoot through the ash, kicking it up in clouds that swirled about Her. She smiled beatifically upon Her accuser, tightening the chains until struggle became bone-crackingly impossible.
Daintily, She mounted Her friend’s legs and patted upon her sex, motioning for you to take your seat, and you took it, settling down upon your insane transportation.
Jeanne wrapped Her arms around your neck, resting Her body against your back as the cat polled the sobbing girl headlong into the flame.
And as we were consigned to the fire, the townspeople awoke to burning homes.