House Sanguine

House Sanguine

A. M. Johnson

For all my mistakes, let this be known: I never made my daughters. I found them.
Francina was the first — an accident. I found her on the grounds, in the garden, lying on cobblestone. It was winter, and my Francina was a stain of spring on the powdered ground. From a distance I thought her a curious, impossible bloom. As I grew closer, I realized it was a woman, crumpled like a forgotten handkerchief. I was timid, I admit. I circled the pink moment, unsure of what it meant. There was no bow, no ribbon, no tag with my name, but I felt inexplicably and inarguably sure that she was a gift left on the doorstep for me.

I heard then a wet sound, ugly, like a choking gasp. And in this way I was led to find my second daughter, Caterina. She lay not far from her sister, crumpled in much the same way, but paler and twitching in the chest. Her skin was green around her neck. A pool of vomit lay beside her shoulder. The mass was nearly black, still steaming from her body’s warmth. When I approached, she convulsed. I do not believe it was a reaction to me. Still, I stepped back, and watched her twist and groan.

Not far from the poisonous mass lay an open hand, almost as white as the snow. I followed the line and at the end of it lay Alcina, my youngest, lying on a blanket of her own blood. She was blue and dead, cold to the touch, and devoid of heartbeat when I touched her fragile, black-veined neck.

It was easy to carry the girls inside; they weighed nothing to me. I took the pink girl first, because her chest still rose and fell. When I held her in my arms, her eyes opened, wide and observant, before they fluttered, and closed. The green girl was a bit more difficult — alive, still, but fussy. She tried too hard to breathe, and thought me a monster through her death-addled mind. I made sure the first two were inside, lying flat before the hearth in the front hall, before I returned for the blue girl at last. Her body was ice through our clothes.

By the time I had laid them in a row, side by side by side, all three women were dead. All eyes had chosen to close before they died. An admirable thing, this — I instantly liked them. Rather than stare hopelessly into the coming wave of rigor mortis, as I had, they chose to yield to the inevitable with well-coiffed grace. They were strong in the final way. I paused, unsure again. I thought, perhaps I should let them die. But they were young, abandoned, and alone, and had come all this way. No one comes to the castle unless they are truly desperate. Desperate, and with mindful purpose. Yes, they must have left themselves as gifts, as offerings for me.

Though they could not hear my voice, I promised aloud that whenever they were done with life, I would let them go. I would let them, but I would not offer help, could not, for my gifted little girls.

For forty days and forty nights, I bathed my daughters. As the sun moved in the winter sky, so did my piece of cloth. Up and down the silk ran on their bodies, on their arms and legs and sleeping faces, cleaning the mess of their former lives. Their skin turned from white to red, and finally to brown. My blood dried on their skin, oxidizing, forming a fine, flaky paste. I labored, painting layer after layer of myself onto their empty shells, until my forearms ached. I scrubbed until my knuckles were numb. I pushed until sweat poured from my brow. I worked until I thought I’d failed, until I finally heard the fluttering beats of their hearts. At the sound, I think I cried from relief.

I chose my largest bath, the porcelain clawfoot tub. It was enormous, deep and long enough for even me to lay inside. The three girls fit easily, gently curled against each other’s chests. Little panting hummingbird breaths. Their hair, three different colors, lay together like a flag. I filled the tub with warm water, and scrubbed the blood paste from their skin. Once or twice they twitched, or tried to breathe. Precious gestures — my daughters were so ready to be alive again, kicking and screaming, so to

So I worked hard and hardy. I swabbed every speck of blood from every crevice, every shadow and nook. By the time I finished, the white moons of their toenails were spotless. Their ears gleamed seashell pink. The girls were clean, the water was drained. I folded myself as small as I could on the white marble floor. And I bit deep into the flesh of my forearm, let the blood flow down over their downy, flaxen legs.

My castle was silent except for the last drips falling into the waiting pool. I lay with my heavy head on my extended arm, eyes almost closed. Sun glinted off the solid maroon surface, wrinkling only at my barest of breaths. As flies swarmed the bodies of my daughters I picked them from the air and crushed them between my teeth. When I could no longer move my arm, I bit my tongue and opened my mouth. Inevitably, the flies came on their own, resting on my molars like sticks and stones.
Either that, or they drowned in the bath. Fodder, I suppose.

I waited. I bled. And I remembered dying, being born again. The world was unfair when I woke from the dead. I lay at the bottom of a coffin, beneath an eternity of hard winter dirt. No mother to speak of, no bestower of second life. I was an anomaly, a pseudopod of my former self. So in the dark cold box, I dreamed. Summertime dreams — I pined for the days when warmth was total, inarguable, a fact beyond fact. But my first mother was long dead, having died when I was first born. And now I was dead, too. Except I wasn’t. I must remember, I thought in my coffin — I must not forget that I am not dead. In some inconceivable way, despite everything, I am alive. I have my hands. They are cold and I can tell, because I am not dead.

So I dug. I clawed till my fingernails were packed and pained. And when I finally broke through my coffin and climbed from the dirt which held me tight, I breathed winter air, inhaling pieces of snow. It was night. I bathed in the river. Mud ran thick down my face and arms, over my burial dress, which was heavy and ugly and rough. Colors ran through the fabric, all chartreuse and violet and vermillion and jade. I squeezed them into the river, which took them away. Water froze on my hair, in my eyelashes. I froze but I felt no pain. And I hated, suddenly, the way the gems were sewn into my skirts. I hated the garnets hanging in my ears, the emeralds choking my neck. I tore the rings from my fingers and dropped them in the water so that they might be washed forever. I swore then that I would wear white always. Never again would gaudy color touch my skin in the name of comfort that was not mine.

I tore the burial dress to pieces and walked back through the woods to my father’s castle. There I killed my father, my six brothers, and my uncle. I piled their bodies on a child’s sled and dragged them back to my grave. They weighed nothing to me. I dumped them in the hole where they had wanted me to lie, and returned as they had so often returned from this same graveyard: the lawful heir to our bloody home. And from that day on I grew constantly, until the bragging archways of my home, which had been once so grand, so impossibly tall, were now perfectly sized.

Now I sat on the floor of my castle and bled for women I did not know. I looked down the length of my arm, at its opened flesh like butchered meat, already drained and hung.

And I waited. And I bled.

Francina was the last to die, the first to wake. Days after our first meeting, she came stumbling into my quarters, coated in liquid blood, legs quaking like a newborn foal. Skin streaked red, hair matted and tacky, her arms wrapped tight around her breasts, as if there was any shame between us now. She looked at me, her eyes observant and wide as they had been in her first life. She stood in the doorway, staring where I sat at the rosewood vanity desk. I set down my paper and pen, and we understood then what had transpired, the deal we had wordlessly made.

She followed me to another bathroom, to a bathtub more fit for a human body. Her footsteps made wet sounds on the floor, growing stickier the further she walked. I filled the tub with hot water, while Francina sat behind on the toilet, watching my every move. I added rosewater to the bath. I explained to her that it countered the scent of blood. I realized then, with shame, that those were the first words I ever spoke to my daughter. A practical fact. Information that would let her live better. Was that the kind of mother I would be? Functional and nothing more? I held her hand as she climbed into the bath. I brushed the flakes of blood from her hair with my favorite ivory comb.

As she bathed, Francina told me the tale of how she came to me. They were sisters, she explained, despite their tri-colored hair. As infants they were birthed by the same woman — who died that same day. As adults they were poisoned by another, who married their father late and wanted money too much. My girls were clever, even then. They realized that their food tasted cruel this morning. So they ran to the castle at the end of the woods. They knew the Baroness would protect them — stories were told in the village of the tall woman who lived in the castle alone. Tall woman in white, who crushed wolves in her fists and drank of their blood. Smaller stories were whispered after, of her vengeance, and her law. The law of blood, Francina said, and her voice went soft. With fear or reverence, I could not tell.

She looked down into the water then, and said what I have always said: balance in all things. As blood spills, blood must return. I merely nodded, smiling to show her I was pleased.

A noise rang through the halls then, like a trumpet made of glass. It took me a long, wistful moment to realize it was a scream. By the time I realized, Francina was already out of the tub. She ran streaming from the second bathroom to the first, and I followed. I walked slow, giving them their due time. By the time I arrived, Francina was messed again, her arms and face touched with blood. She held and calmed her sister, or tried to. Catarina, who saw me as I ducked to enter the bathroom, screamed at the sight. Real fear in her eyes — I had the thought that she would never love me, and accepted it instantly. But to my surprise, Francina’s hand came down on the side of her sister’s face. Catarina was finally silent, staring then. She looked into Francina’s face, which I could not see, and listened to her sister speak. Catarina then turned her face to me, her browned and bloodied face, and bowed her head in apology.

It was then that Alcina woke, and woke crying, tears leaving white trails in her rusted skin. Having forgiven and forgotten, her sisters pet her head and whispered hushes and shushes to her ears. Catarina and Alcina climbed out of the tub, which I emptied, and scrubbed clean. The three returned to the new, fresh, hot water, which I laced with rose. They watched me with quiet eyes as I explained why.

A. M. Johnson