March 17th, 1875
Clop-clop-clop-clop-clop. . . .
Victor bit his lip as the hoofbeats echoed around the otherwise silent carriage. Across from him, his parents sat in mute judgment, eyes boring holes through his body. It was eerie – he'd come back to the Everglot cottage fully expecting his mother to give him an earful. Instead, she'd simply glared at him and motioned that he should stay in his seat. She and William had exchanged a terse goodbye with the Everglots (who looked as if the Van Dorts couldn't vanish from their sight soon enough), then joined him inside. Victor had tried to speak, but William had cut him off with a knock on the roof to Harland. And after that – nothing but those sharp, disappointed stares. I actually want her to yell at me, Victor thought, fingers picking at a loose thread in his top jacket button. Anything would be better than that look.
At last, Nell broke the silence. "You. Have ruined. Our lives."
"Do you know the sort of ancestry the Everglots have? The standing among the elite? One of their relations was a grand duke! Can you imagine that? They were the cream of the social crop! If we'd had their name connected to our own, we would have had everything one could ask for! Now we're going to be known throughout eternity as the people who threw away a marriage to one of the best noble families in England!" She stabbed her fan at Victor's face, coming within inches of taking off the tip of his nose. "All because you decided a corpse would be a better bride than a living woman!"
"This is not going to be good for business, Victor," William added. There was a hardness in his voice Victor had never heard before. It made him want to run and hide behind one of the trees growing on the side of the road. "We have a reputation to uphold. Good fish from a good family. It's bad enough we've lost a connection with the nobility. But if news of your madness spreads outside the village. . .sales have fallen far enough at home. We can't afford for them to drop across the whole country." He shook his head. "I'm very disappointed in you, son."
"Father, I don't want it to get out beyond our village either," Victor said. "I don't want to be known as a m-madman, or some evil sorcerer. I just want to be left alone. You needn't worry."
"Poppycock," Nell snapped. "Eight psychiatrists, and you still believe the dead can walk. If you were really interested in getting well, Victor, you'd forget that 'corpse bride' ever existed."
Victor bristled. "I'm not going to do that, Mother. I can promise not to talk about her, but I'm not going to forget her. She deserves to be remembered."
"No she doesn't!" The fan whacked against her seat. "She was nothing but a – a sick hallucination you had! A deranged fantasy you conjured up to embarrass us!" She whipped the fan up like a sword, pointing it at his forehead. "If you cared about us at all, you'd wipe her from your mind! Start fresh so we might have some chance of making a decent match!"
"Mother, she existed! She was murdered! I helped set her free! It would be beyond disrespectful for me to pretend she never was!" Victor clasped his hands in front of his face. "Why can't you be satisfied with me being quiet? Why can't I remember in peace?"
"Because we don't want you to have a relapse!" Nell shouted, crimson. "The last thing I want is to come home one day and find my sitting room filled with dead bodies, with you in the middle chatting away!"
"I wouldn't do that!"
"Wouldn't you? You seemed to have all sorts of fun with it at the Everglots' manor!" Nell rolled her eyes. "Talking about dancing bones and eyes in soup. . .perhaps it's for the best you're not marrying their daughter, you seem to addle everyone you come into contact with lately!"
"We just want you to make a good marriage and become – well – a real person, Victor," William said, voice softer now. "And you can't do that as long as you – as long as you hold onto these fantasies."
"That's right!" Nell agreed, snapping her fan open. "All this nonsense about walking dead and lands below – it won't do, Victor, it just won't!"
Victor sighed and turned his gaze to the window. It was no use arguing – if the testimonies of both Pastor Galswells and the Everglots wasn't going to change her mind, he didn't have a chance in Hell. It seemed she would not be satisfied until he declared Emily nothing but a daydream. And that's not going to happen until it snows down there, he thought, scowling. You'd think by now they would understand I'm not backing down on this. Emily's memory is too important.
Emily. . . .
Where is she now? Victor wondered, as the silence and the glaring resumed. What happened, exactly, when I set her free? Elder Gutknecht only said that she was happy. . .did she go somewhere else when she burst into butterflies? Or was that just a fancy way of returning to the Land of the Dead? And. . .if the latter. . . .
Could I possibly see her again?
For a split-second, Victor was shocked with himself. Was he seriously thinking of seeking her out and proposing once more? That had worked out so well for him the last time. . .and if there was anything that would convince his parents to finally disown him, that would be it.
Then he pictured that warm pink smile against bright blue skin, that child-like giggle that swelled up and out her punctured breast, and those long, skilled fingers – one set blue, one white – dancing over piano keys. A pleasant, runny warmth flowed into his chest. They hadn't had much time together, and he hadn't exactly been a gentleman through most of it, but – when she'd returned his long-lost Scraps to him, when she'd twirled like a ballerina in the moonlight, when she'd bared her soul to him through music, when she'd come up the aisle glowing like an angel. . .for those brief moments, all had been right in the world between them. He wanted more moments like that. And the only other person who could give them to him –
What was even left up here for him, anyway? Just like before, Victoria was married – and this time, it was no penny dreadful horror story that she would work constantly to escape. She was truly lost to him forever now. He had no friends in town – certainly not after Galswells had branded him with the mark of Satan. And his parents would probably like nothing more than for their "insane" son to disappear off the face of the earth. Everything Above was nothing but pain and sorrow and rejection. While Below. . .Below was color and enthusiasm and excitement. Below was warm smiles and pats on the back and encouragement to sit down and have a drink. Below was a motherly chef whipping up new treats (preferably without noses, thank you) in an attempt to fatten him up before rigor mortis set in; a fast-taking musician teaching him new tunes and melodies; a loyal friend sitting at his feet and begging for table scraps just as he had while alive. And if Below included an enthusiastic young bride. . . .
It wasn't quite like the life he'd pictured for himself and Victoria. No children or house, or growing old together. But it was still nice – sharing a coffin at night, hands intertwined. Welcoming new arrivals with a smile and a seat at the bar. Teaching Scraps new tricks while chatting with Maggot and Black Widow. Performing more piano duets, letting the music speak for them when words simply wouldn't do. And, on their anniversaries, a quick trip Upstairs so they could enjoy a waltz in the moonlight. It seemed a content and – well, not peaceful. The dead liked their parties too much for that. But it would be full of fun, companionship, and joy. With someone he loved at his side for the rest of eternity. And no one accusing him of madness or evil ever again.
Nell muttered something about him being a proper fool, but he ignored her. His mind was made up. Once they got home, he'd go back to the woods and look for Emily's hand. And then he'd do his best to convince her they deserved a second chance.
"VAN DORTS RETURN FROM EVERGLOT-CHASING EXCURSION! FISH MERCHANTS FLOP AS MISSING LORD AND LADY–"
"Oh, hold your tongue!" Nell snarled as they pulled up in front of the mansion. "The least you could do is let us have a cup of tea first!"
The crier glared at her, then turned away, ringing his bell. "AND NOW THE WEATHER – partly cloudy, with fog overnight. . . ."
"I could do with a good cup," William commented as he and Victor exited the carriage. Harland came around to assist Nell. "How about you, Victor?"
"I'd – I'd rather a walk," Victor said, squeezing his hands behind his back. "It's been a very long ride, and I'd l-like to stretch my legs."
William peered at him suspiciously. "Not headed for the woods, are you? Pastor Galswells will throw a fit."
"Don't bother, William – he'll do what he likes whatever we say," Nell grumbled as she popped through the carriage door. "Just go. And make sure you're presentable for tea when you get back."
"Thank you." Victor turned and started along the edge of the square – then, once he was sure his parents were paying him no more mind, hurried around the house, through the back garden, and in via the servants' entrance. He crept his way through the halls, keeping to the shadows until he reached the stairs. Once he was sure the coast was clear, he sprinted up them to his room. He hated not being able to walk freely through his own home – but there was something important he needed before he took his walk. Something he'd thankfully kept hidden from his disbelieving mother and father. Closing the door behind him, he crossed over to his desk and pulled open the bottom leftmost drawer.
Gold winked at him from the back corner. Victor picked up the plain band and rolled it between his fingers. Funny – I could honestly blame all my troubles on this ring, he thought, holding it up to catch the light. If I'd managed to keep a hold of it during the rehearsal, I'd probably be married to Victoria by now. He tossed it into the air and caught it. On the other hand, I would have never met Emily, so. . .but none of that matters anymore. All that's important is that this worked for me once. Let's hope it does again.
He breathed on the band, polished it on his lapel, then slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. A glance in the mirror and a few rakes of his fingers through his hair proved him an acceptable groom. He sucked in a deep, steadying breath, then looked around the little chamber. Butterfly pictures on the walls, books piled haphazardly on his desk, paints and brushes scattered around the old easel in the corner. He'd spent over half his life in this place. He could still pick out the scratches in the floor where Scraps had tried to chase a mouse, and the ding in the bed frame where he'd crashed a toy train into the leg. So many memories for such a small space. . .and in just a minute, he would leave it forever. He bit his lip, touching the stool, the window, the mattress. Even though there was nothing here but inanimate objects, it still hurt a bit to say goodbye.
But there's something better waiting for me out there, he reminded himself. He ran his fingers over the picture of himself and Scraps hanging in his little alcove. "See you soon, boy," he whispered, stroking the puppy's head.
And then he turned around and walked out, with nary a backward glance.
Getting to the woods wasn't hard – with the townsfolk actively ignoring him, he could walk through the village with impunity. Even the town crier left him alone. Probably annoyed I'm not doing anything worthy of another headline. . .don't worry, sir, you'll have stories aplenty by this evening.
He paused on the bridge to take a few gulps of the cool spring air – best to enjoy the sensation while he could. Then he entered the forest proper, winding his way through the old trees up the path that would lead him to Emily's final resting place. His heart beat faster as he neared it. This had seemed like such a solid plan before, but now. . .how would he greet her? What would he say? What would she say? And the others, what would they say? Would she even be able to take him straight down to the Land of the Dead, like before? Or would she need to fetch help? Was there a way for him to finalize his vows to her without visiting the Land of the Living? Or, if it was a requirement, did they have to do it in the church? Though giving Pastor Galswells another fright in my final moments sounds like an excellent idea. . .we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I just need to remember – 'With this hand, I will lift your sorrows.' He crossed the stream, babbling away under his feet. 'Your cup will never empty, for I will be your wine.' Up through the old graveyard, being careful not to knock any headstones. 'With this candle, I will light your way in darkness.' Past the stump that had played Lord Everglot, and the tangled branches that had served as his Lady. 'With this ring – I ask you to be mine.'
And there he was. Right in front of the old, twisted oak tree. Victor grinned. "Emily?" he called. "Emily, I'm back!"
No answer. Well, it was silly to expect one just yet. He had to summon her first. He pulled out the ring and dropped to his knees among the sprawling roots. Now all he had to do was slip it on her finger, and –
And. . .
And where's her hand?
Victor's head snapped from side to side as he scanned the dirt at the base of the tree. Nothing – nothing but leaf litter, a patch or two of unmelted snow, and a handful of withered shoots poking their heads towards the sun. No curled fingers, no grime-stained arm – nothing at all to suggest someone lay slumbering beneath the stunted branches. Am I in the wrong spot? Victor thought, turning in a circle. But I recognize all this! How could everything be here except her? He scrabbled through the leaves and needles, crunching them in his hands as he searched for what wasn't there. This must be where Barkis buried her. . .did someone come and dig her up?! But why would anyone do that? Maybe some kind soul decided to bury her properly. . .and risk Galswells's wrath? In this village? Perhaps an animal ran off with it as a snack. . .but – why now? Shouldn't that have happened earlier?
Victor paused, looking down at the old, forgotten grave. That – should have happened earlier, shouldn't it? He knew for a fact that there were foxes in the forest – he'd seen Lord Everglot chasing them. Not one of them would have turned down a free meal. And, when you thought about it, why would her arm have been above ground in the first place? Who buried someone with their hand reaching out to passers-by? Even a vicious murderer eager to get out of town wouldn't have been in that much of a rush. Why hadn't anyone stumbled upon her before? Granted, the woods weren't anyone's favorite walking place but his own, and the elements had worn her bones down to an unlikely bundle of branches by the time he'd accidentally proposed, but still. . .it didn't make a lot of sense.
Unless. . .unless her hand only appeared when she was looking for a husband, Victor thought, furrowing his brow. How did Bonejangles put it? "She made a vow lying under that tree, that she'd wait for her true love to come set her free." And I'm the last person now to deny the existence of magic. Maybe. . .maybe her vow became a kind of magic. A contract with – the earth, perhaps? "You wait here with your hand extended, and I'll keep it from getting destroyed or disturbed until the right person comes along. And when he does, you can rise up again and claim your groom." It – it makes a twisted sort of sense. . . .
But then why is it gone now? his heart objected. She never got married! Our wedding proved to be null and void! Shouldn't she still be waiting?
The song echoed through his skull again. "Come set her free. . . ." Emily hadn't been waiting for a husband, exactly. She'd been waiting for someone to free her. Maybe she hadn't realized that when she'd said the words, but. . . . In the church, it would have been easy for her to insist that he complete his vows. To take advantage of his willingness to keep his promise. But no – instead, she'd given him that tender, bittersweet smile and said that he'd fulfilled it already. But how?
Well, you did help her bring her murderer to justice, a far corner of his brain pointed out. She'd probably wanted to hold Barkis at swordpoint for a long, long time. And the way it all ended assured her no one else would suffer her fate. Elder Gutknecht said as much.
Yes – but he also said that I showed her love really exists, another bit argued. How did I manage that? I spent over half of our time together either running from her or insulting her!
But. . .I did apologize. I came back when it would have been easy to run away. I played with her on the piano, something I've never had the courage to do with anyone else. I let her see me at my most vulnerable. And. . .and I proved there was someone out there that would give up his life just for her happiness. I even got her as far as the altar. She may not have become my wife, but she got to walk up the aisle a bride. I – I guess that was enough of her dream fulfilled. So when she turned into butterflies. . . .
They hadn't been a fancy way of returning to the Land of the Dead. Elder Gutknecht could be cryptic, but not that cryptic. No, when he'd set Emily free, her soul had clearly gone someplace else. Heaven, like everyone said? Or maybe she'd become a part of nature. Maybe a sliver of her soul was in every blue butterfly she'd dissolved into, free to wander wherever she wanted, free to see the world. He liked that thought. Either way, she'd left behind anything resembling a mortal body and mortal cares. Which included the need for a husband.
The need for him.
He stared briefly at the gold circle held between his fingers. Then he placed it right at the base of the tree and covered it with a handful of earth. A poor memorial, to be sure, but as there was no chance of getting her a gravestone. . . . He patted it down, then sighed and stood up, brushing the dirt off his pants. He knew he could still technically go ahead with his plan. Killing himself would bring him back to all his other friends Downstairs. But – it all felt rather hollow now that he knew Emily wouldn't be there. And worse, he no longer had any guarantee the other people he cared about would be either. Maybe Ms. Plum or Bonejangles or Scraps had passed on as well in the past months. Or if they hadn't yet, they would. He couldn't bear to watch his loved ones fade away around him, not knowing where they were going. Not knowing if or when it would happen to him. Oooooh. . .I wish that explanation had been for mortal ears, Elder Gutknecht, he thought. I could really use one.
He looked around the clearing once more, then up at the old oak tree. "I – I don't know if you can hear me," he said softly, "but I just want you to know that – that I really do hope you're happy, Emily. Elder Gutknecht told me you were, and I suppose he would know, but. . .I would have preferred hearing it from you." He sighed again, then smiled. "Wherever you are, whatever you are – I wish you joy, and peace. I want you to rest easy knowing that I will never forget you. No matter what my parents do. I will cherish our time together always. And I think Victoria won't ever forget you either. She's sorry, by the way, for thinking you were evil once. I'm sure you understand." He laid a hand on the rough bark. "I love you, Emily. Be happy, wherever you are. And know that you will never be forgotten."
With that, he turned and hurried away, eager to put some distance between himself and the grave. Because if her spirit did linger around there in some form –
He didn't want her to see him cry.