He smoothed down her ebony hair, languorously, carefully twisting the last wisps of black satin around his finger. Deliberately.
One finger moved against her ear, the tiny pearl earring glowing brightly. Like a Vermeer painting, eloquent, picturesque, poignant.
She closed her eyes in anticipation.
She opened. "Like what?"
It rippled from his lips, a playful waterfall splashing over crystal rocks. He laughed, just a little. "Dangerous."
"Like a good book. A delicious book."
"Yes." He rested one finger on her rosebud lips. "An unopened book of philosophy."
"Ah! You mock me?"
"I mock flowers." Almost an afterthought, "Of evil."
"A garden!" He whispered. "Roses and perfume lingering over cobbled stone. A symphony of colour. Statues of Eros. A walled garden, safe, opened only to her… lover."
"And in the end, always dangerous."
I was married to a husband that doted but did not love. I was nothing more than his pretty wife. And every day, every sunset I'd run to the ruined castle at the top of the highest hill to cry and pour out my soul.
The castle, I named Casa Lenora.
Casa Lenora, because she was sad; she was a white, forsaken castle, built in the Medieval Times, and she dominated the craggy moorland. Some walls had already fallen; they left nothing more than gaping columns. Her moat had dried up long ago; I entered the castle through a lowered, age-eaten wooden drawbridge. I would browse among her weedy garden, touch the gentle creepers fanning up ancient stone vaults, and listen to pit-pattering rain on heavy sky days.
I simply did not love Dawnley, my husband. We had married because of our families. True lovers are transparent; they are happy, and they love. Their souls merge as one; words of poetry, two rosy lips, a key and a gate.
We were not true lovers.
As the years passed, I would become calloused – tuned to this life of broken clocks, no love-letters, and unanswered prayers. Head high, gracious manners, an inane smile, a polite fan. Yet I still cried – I bled, angry tears, tears like blood that bruised the heart. How I hated myself.
Until I met him.
"You say, dangerous."
He grinned. "I have a reason then to explore my little garden."
She laughed loosely in her Bacchante dress, the sprigs of ivy and heather snowing down her hair, and moued petulantly. "The garden is walled."
"The book of philosophy?"
"It is locked."
He frowned, echoing her naïve sunbeams. "Where, oh where, do I find the key?"
"By solving the mystery. The question of the ages."
"Ohhh!" Straight and proud, nodding, in mockery, like a great philosopher ready to unveil life's greatest, airiest mystery. "The question of love. How should I say it? Love is like wine."
"Wine, that makes men falter and stumble."
"And see stars, and extraordinary things."
"Dangerous." She laughed now, wickedly; hurried Desire around the crooks of her beating heart.
His name was Ray – I could not ask for more. He was a poet, he lived a solitary life in a little hamlet not too far from my manor. "Looking for inspiration. Communing myself with nature," he explained.
My brown-haired poet, with his precocious green eyes, that drank the day and the dew and the sun. One look between us, an electric blaze, and we realized we were inseparable.
I finally had a reason to live. I was dishonourable, I was sinful, but I could finally breathe – and that was all that mattered.
Casa Lenora was our haven. It was our world. We frequented the castle grounds, admiring the gamey gardens, the ruined walls, the sick, liveried moss that clung to every stone and statue. We explored the gentle, wild moors around the castle. We knew where the sky larks sang sweet and sharp, where the heather clung and kissed like little purple stars. We read poetry and seasoned our days with precious words. Swimming in the clear waters, surfacing only to breathe in sunshine, and drink our golden love.
When twilight came, I recited Baudelaire. He was our favourite writer. We loved the poems about madness, malice, and death. We loved exploring the deepest, darkest recesses of men's souls.
And we explored each other, too. Clairvoyant minds, joined by an invisible yet tenacious bond; two trees, rocking in each other's arms, toes barely flicking the water's edge. We watched clouds, caught fireflies, and stood at the very edge of cliffs for the sheer fun of doing so. Lazy summers lolling in the grass, playing with leaves. I would place my head against his chest and listen to the gentle thump-thump of his heart, while he ran his fingers through my hair.
Do you, Ray, remember the day we pledged our love? A sunny day; the air hummed with earthy scents and new life. We stood at the highest tower of Casa Lenora. The castle shivered with age, but we did not care.
You took a tiny needle, a pricked your thumb. I did the same with mine. And we pressed them together, forging that pact, that unforgettable covenant:
"I love you, forever and always."
"Twilight," her last resort. She knew better than to give in – immediately. "Dangerous twilight."
"You speak of love's tragedies."
Combing at the air now; trailing fingers along the quiet lake, watching watercolour swirls and smudged flowers.
She simpered. "Playing with the fire. Burning the lips and the heart. And what for?"
"A reason to live and die."
"Illusions to keep, and warm the heart. A reason to die."
"That is Life's Philosophy. Not Love's."
"Love, life, what does it matter? The two are one." Laughing gaily, he rolled her backwards into the grass.
He always escorted me back to my house. Hand in hand, we would part at the white gates, where I kept my yellow orchids.
I told him to stay further away from my manor, lest Dawnley would sight him. But Ray never listened. Instead, he would pull me into his arms and kiss me hard.
"Where were you, miss?" Dawnley asked as I sailed into the drawing room. "What fray-"
I could hardly suppress my laughter. "Out. Riding, sir." I was a mess. My hair, disheveled like a loose Bacchante, and my dress covered in grass stains. "I went riding, and fell off of my horse."
"No attendants to help you back?"
I shook my head. "I wanted some time, sir, to reflect in my privacy." And kiss. And love.
"Did you enjoy it?"
He looked at me long and hard, like a father regarding his disobedient child. "Ahem. You are a lovely woman, Eve. Pray, do not defile your beauty by riding around the moors like some windswept, burned gypsy."
And that afternoon, we drank earl grey tea in little white cups with heather-painted rims.
"For philosophy." Inside her head now; he was inside her head, inside every fiber of her being. Just the two, a wired heaven.
She remembered to breathe, and shook away the stars.
He licked his lips. "A book."
"Edged with gold and rainbow thread. Painted with jeweled colours and lovingly illuminated. A fragrance, musk, spilling from the cream-coloured pages." Their eyes met, a marriage of brown and violet fire.
Though it was hot, she shivered. Perhaps in ecastasy.
"Reading it," he kissed her ivory hands, "Like reading a soul."
"What do you see?"
The air was musky, spicy, thick, sublime and intangibly violet. An exotic garden.
She laughed, a tinkling, obstinate air. "Pagan. Profane."
"Yet loved by her creator."
"A book of-"
And autumn came: an orange autumn, corrosive. Our perfect painting faded, paints diffusing into lost tears.
It was darkness, and it was fear.
Running. I was running, the wind buffeting in my hair, my bare feet skidding over sharp rocks and creepers. Calling – "Ray! Ray!"
Wind swept and howled; it cried.
Overhead, low, fuming clouds of rain and storm choked the sky. Something whipped out of the grey and slashed across my arm. Cursing, I pulled myself away, drops of blood beading on the wound.
Where was Dawnley? I had not seen him. He would have told me if he'd slip away somewhere. And now –
Thunder cracked beneath the eye of God.
Casa Lenora loomed in the distance like a white ghost. She might as well have been the moon. The wind tore at my lungs but I kept running, flitting against the shadows.
Two figures by the drawbridge. I could see two figures; one kneeling, the other standing. The standing placed something against the head of the kneeling.
A flash of electricity, and I realized.
"No!" I cried. "NO!" A gust of wind whipped my words, my despair, and flung them across the sea of emptiness – perhaps they heard. Perhaps they realized, too.
The figures turned.
He, the standing one, spoke. I could not hear his words, but I could read his lips: "You were a whore. You are a whore. And you will always be a whore!"
The kneeling figure – my poet – merely stared.
And Dawnley pulled the trigger.
What did you see, Ray, when you fell? Did you die with a name on your lips?
Did you curse me?
Did you love me?
Years later, a ghost haunting the place where she one knew love:
People still pass by Casa Lenora. They'll run about, free, among the weeds and other dead life from my still gardens. They laugh. They cry. The romantics kiss. I'll reach out and call to them. I cannot touch them, for my touch kills.
And they always run away.
Like two trees by the river's edge, roots seeping into the moist ground. He in her head, she in his; the world bleeding white and red stars.
"In conclusion," she slurred, turning the words sweetly – tentatively around her dried tongue.
"To our most esteemed discussion?"
She looked to the castle. "Dangerous."
"Yes." He smoothed down his sun-kissed hair and drummed his fingers on the dewy grass.
"Insatiable, unquenchable. Cruel, if you think of it."
"Audacious. A brazen thing."
"And in the end-"