art by Jonathan Westbrook
Under a Sky of Knives
by Michelle Muenzler
"I'll kill him," Helene says. "I'll rip out his heart and throw it to the crows." Autumn winds tear at her hair, lashing her face with black tendrils.
We stand, my sister and I, simultaneously together and apart, her hands clenching the cold stone of the public garden's only bridge and mine worming deeper into the protective pockets of my woolen dress. She, of course, still wears silk, even as our breaths cloud white in the early chill.
Just below us, one of the garden's many paths curves through a stand of black alder. But it is not the path's curve we are watching. A woman strains against an alder just off the path, bark tearing at her blue silk dress as she writhes and moans. Pressing into her, the subject of my sister's talk of murder thrusts his hips harder. Willem--glorious, golden-haired Willem. Willem, grunting in the alders loud enough we can hear him from here.
Willem, my sister's husband.
"If I don't kill him," Helene says, "I'll kill myself."
My chest squeezes so tight that every word I want to utter compacts against the others choking my throat. I want her to shut up, to let me suffer in silence watching Willem.
"Don't be an idiot," I finally say, my voice croaking from the effort. "Why kill yourself when you can kill her, instead?"
"Stop," Helene hisses. "Don't you dare pretend to care about me. You're just as bad as she is." She jabs a finger in the direction of the woman in blue, who gasps as Willem lifts her up, his grip firm beneath her bunched up skirts.
I force my gaze to the empty stretch of green behind Willem, and the pressure in my chest lessens. "Your words are sharp." I slide my right hand from my pocket and bare the long scar racing across its palm. "See how they cut?"
The puckered edges of my scar are red and worried, just the way I want her to see them. Her hands clench tighter on the bridge's railing, but that is her only acknowledgement of the wound she gave me months ago.
"I will do it," she finally says. "I'll climb to Anafeal and give myself to her. I'll spend the last of my life to curse the remainder of his. See if I don't."
I force a laugh from my throat. "Suicide doesn't become you, sister. And Anafeal is just as likely to do nothing at all as she is to curse him. Either way, you'll be dead and never know the difference."
"Better death than watching this again and again."
Yet still her gaze remains stuck on Willem and the woman in blue. Our life spins in circles, the same conversation repeated with every new discovery of Willem's infidelity.
I'm sick of it.
"If you're going to do it," I say, "then just do it. I don't care what happens to you anymore."
Her hand snaps against my cheek. So hard my jaw trembles. So hard I grit my teeth to keep from crying out. I want to weep--for her, for Willem, for the words that just left my tongue--but if I do, she'll never forgive me.
"I think I'm done strolling today," I say instead.
Helene doesn't even nod in acknowledgement as I abandon her at the bridge, but I know what she's thinking. If anyone should climb to Anafeal to die, it's me. That's the only truth between us, anymore.
Before I fall asleep that night, I lay on the creaking servant's bed my sister decided two months ago would be mine, under sheets so threadbare they are near worthless, and I tug at the edges of my scar. I pick until tears sting my eyes, until my palm burns and starbursts of pain stab outward from it. I pick until the edges ripple red.
Someday, Helene will see this scar and weep. Only then will I know she's forgiven me. Only then will I be able to forgive myself.
Come morning, I knock at Helene's door. "Wake up."
This should be a servant's job, but my sister trusts no one in the house anymore. I'm only tolerated because I'm family and have nowhere else to go. I make a poor servant, but Helene argues I'm a better servant than I am a sister. I think I'm bad at both.
She doesn't answer her door, so I knock again.
Still no response.
Cautiously, I toe down the hallway to Willem's door and ponder whether to wake him. She wouldn't be here--not after yesterday. It'll be days before she forgives him.
The only other possibility is unthinkable, though.
I knock on his door and swallow back the trembling in my chest.
By the time he answers, I'm ready to run. But then he opens the door, a loose robe tossed casually over his shoulders, leaving most of him exposed. He leans into the doorframe, not bothering to hide anything, and smiles.
"A bit early for a visit, don't you think?"