Her first breath came in like razors. Fear of pain made Catherine hold onto it as long as she could. She let go all at once, coughing and sputtering. The wetness on her face, was that blood–?
“Catherine!” Victor’s voice, so familiar and foreign, as if she hadn’t heard him speak in years.
Panic again until she realized that the darkness was from her own closed eyes. Their bedroom. He stood above with flushed cheeks.
Catherine touched her left wrist with the tips of her fingers, padding over the stitches. The deep gouge was unhealed, fresh.
Six days since she’d slipped into a warm bath with a glass of brandy and the silver handled razor she bought in the ‘Quarter. By the time Victor found her she was beyond saving.
But here she was, saved.
He took her arm. Helped her from the bed. Her legs were still weak. She closed her eyes. The warmth of the bath returned, in the distance she heard his struggle against the lock.
“Wake up, darling.” His voice pulled her back. The little room. Did he want her to open her eyes?
Catherine’s own naked body stood before her in the mirror. Marked. Her left half was covered in, words? Yes, one word. Over and over.
She mouthed the word: wake.
People stared, of course. Even for a libertine city like St. Bourbon, the tattoos were shocking. They surely assumed she was a gypsy or some kind of creole witch in a lady’s dress.
Victor acted impervious but Catherine knew him. The snubs stuck him like barbs. Still, he marched around the ‘Quarter with her on his arm as if nothing had changed.
“I can’t,” Catherine said, half dressed at her vanity. “The way they look at me.” A plausible lie. Would she be so reluctant to leave if she could do so without him?
“I didn’t go through this to stay home and hide!” He slammed the flat of his hand into the wall. The solid plaster made the blow unsatisfying, impotent.
Catherine remembered her old fear of these rages. She tilted her head to get a better look at the change happening in him. The anger at the surface and something else, humiliation? She considered pantomiming fear or panic for his sake but her response would come too slow, which would be worse for him.
Victor charged to her chair, slamming his hands on the armrests. His face came two inches from hers.
“After everything I did for you? How dare you sit here and mock me?”
“I didn’t ask for this,” she said with as steady a voice as possible. A rage of her own had begun to rise, a giddiness. “I didn’t mock you.” but she almost did, didn’t she?
Victor spoke through clenched teeth: “I can put you back. Any time I want.”
He left the room.
Late afternoon sun lit the garden with an otherworldly glow. No more beautiful place in the world, Catherine reckoned to herself.
She laughed. How would she know? She’d never left St. Bourbon. Maybe the world was filled with places as beautiful as that garden. More beautiful. Catherine smiled at the thought of a world full of such beautiful places.
“They barely tolerate you here, what makes you think that you could walk down the streets anywhere else like that?” Victor sneered while tying his ascot. “You see the looks you get.”
Catherine seethed. She touched her face again, the tattoos were healed, she could no longer feel the lines he’d etched into her flesh.
The agent at the station kept his reaction to a briefly raised eyebrow. “One ticket, ma’am. Long ride to New Delancey for a woman all by herself.”
Catherine pushed her money across the counter. The agent thumbed through each bill as if he were checking for counterfeits. She walked away with the ticket before he’d finished counting, the money was all there.
Dawn filled the bedroom with a pink glow. A creaking floorboard startled Catherine the rest of the way awake. Victor stood at the foot of the bed.
Catherine tried to sit up but couldn’t. She was tied down. Panic rushed her, she struggled against the ropes but they only cut deeper into her wrists and ankles.
“You were going to take the train in the middle of the night? Leave me, after everything I’ve done for you?” He sat down at the bedside. “I told you that I could put you back.”
Victor produced a pitch black bottle from his waistcoat. The cork squeaked when he pulled it out, spattering ink on the sheets. It smelled unnatural, like hot metal.
Catherine writhed this way and that. Blood trickled from the barely healed cut in her wrists. Victor yelped like he was in pain, staring at the cuts. She wrenched her arm harder.
“Stop!” Victor’s face twisted in horror now. He tumbled away from the bed, to his knees on the floor. Horror to humility.
“I’m sorry,” he said with unconvincing hoarseness.
“Go ahead, Victor. Put me back. Cover me in that ink and let me rest. Don’t you know that’s what I wanted in the first place?”
Victor’s face fell in defeat. He would be docile for only a few moments before his anger found him again.
In his temporary shame he untied her legs. Catherine glared but he wouldn’t make eye contact. He undid her wrists gingerly. The blood still got all over his fingers. He stepped back, unable to take his eyes from his bloody hands. Catherine rose from the bed but he scarcely noticed.
The candlestick was heavy. He didn’t see it coming.
Victor didn’t feel the first few pokes of the needle. By the time he did open his eyes Catherine had been at it for a while. He moved his mouth but no sound came out. She smiled down at him.
“If only you could do this all the time, my dear.”
Catherine continued her work until his eyes closed again. Her back ached, her fingers cramped, and the smell of that ink—she almost had sympathy for how hard he’d worked to bring her back.
“Just these two bags, ma’am?” the porter asked. Catherine could tell he was a nice man by the way he held her gaze. He flinched for only a moment before smiling back.
“No, I have another one. It’s quite important, if I could have you put it in my berth?”
“Of course.” The porter struggled with the large steamer trunk. After some effort he got it to her sleeper room. “Shipping sand bags to New Delancey?” He smiled.
“Oh, I’m just too sentimental to leave some things behind.” She handed him a generous tip.
The train chugged its way out of the station.
Catherine locked her door before opening the trunk. She pulled Victor from inside, his limbs twisted this way and that.
When she got him onto the seat she rested his head against the window. His eyes were fixed as if staring at something far in the distance. Half his body was tattooed in the word “sleep”.
Almost half, anyway.
“Such a lazy thing, I am. Stopping before the job was all the way done.” She brushed Victor’s hair away from his forehead. “I suppose I’m soft hearted after all.” She pecked him on the cheek. “Good thing I took one last look before I buried you, isn’t it my dear?”
Victor, ever so slightly, blinked his eye.