Embodied Hauntings–“The Bitterness of Flesh”

Continuing on my themes from the last week’s posts–hauntings, and also recent releases that didn’t get proper blog posts because my website was down at the time they came out.

“Would you like to see Cleo?”

This time the blush flamed to the surface of her skin, and the chill dove deeper, towards her heart. “I… Can I?”

Robert Fitzwilliam held out his hand. “There’s a statue of her down the hall.”

A statue. Of course. Had she been expecting a ghost? She pressed her palm to his again, felt long fingers close around it, followed the draw of his arm. The thick carpet drank in their footsteps.

“The Bitterness of Flesh” came out in Ever Dream of Mean anthology from Fantasia Divinity Magazine. It was inspired by two things: the Year’s Best Food Writing anthologies from Holly Hughes, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Of course, I was reading those at the same time, which is one of the best ways to cross wires for creative sparks.

Plot-wise, the story is not about a chef: I’m more interested in eating scrumptious delicacies than preparing them, so the Food Writing inspired me to notice and incorporate sensual details–and also an heirloom apple orchard. Honestly, I’m surprised there isn’t more writing out there combining culinary and erotic appetites, although Gael Green’s Insatiable and Ashley Warlick’s The Arrangement are both on my bookshelves (I hadn’t realized M.F.K. Fisher had a love triangle under her belt along with all those European meals!).

The core of the story is about a second wife, and also, of course, about the first one. I adore Gothic novels, but the atmosphere of “Bitterness” is a little lighter than most Gothics–more bittersweet than venomous. Its partial inspiration, Rebecca, is a book about jealousy and fear, love and obsession. And when the heroine gets that obsessed with Rebecca (aided not least by the tour Mrs. Danvers gives of the shrine made from Rebecca’s bedroom), it becomes almost–with more or less “almost” about it–sexual.

Du Maurier herself was bisexual, and Danvers is usually read as inclined that way towards her late mistress (with unsettling and beautiful results), but at least one other fan picked up on the seeming connection between the two Mrs. de Winters–Sally Beauman, in Rebecca’s Talehas a startling kiss that might be enabled by time travel or a reverse haunting, or just a very, very strong metaphor:

I kissed her on the cheek, like an accomplice, and then on the mouth, like a lover… She gave a sigh and vanished into the air.

I sigh, I cry, I consider my choice to read an dubiously-authorized sequel justified.

I’m a fan of fanfiction, published or otherwise, for its way to reinvent and invert and bring up the subtext of the original work. But in this case, I wanted a clean slate, a palette on which to take certain elements–the sensuality, the second wife, a sense of time folding back from the force of an obsession that creates its own haunting–and remix them into something new. I wanted a heroine who, rather than deny the attraction of her predecessor and lose herself to jealousy, embraced that attraction. I wanted a genuine sense of loss in both the widowed husband and the woman who will never meet the one in whose footsteps she follows. I wanted a lingering presence that was benign, even seductive, whether or not it was real.

One aspect of Rebecca that sets it apart from many lesser Gothics, for me, is the lack of supernatural elements–the haunting of Manderley is all psychological. In the “Bitterness of Flesh,” I left some room for ambiguity, but above all I consider it a materialist ghost story.

After all, what could be more material than desire?

She looked at Robert and knew both of them tasted the same flavor and sensation, the same mellifluousness and aching lightness. Sharing it seemed almost like kissing him.

Only then did the idea of kissing him enter her mind. The thought was also sweet and achingly light.

Robert’s first wife, Cleo, has left her mark in every room of the gracious manor home she designed. When Jillian comes to the house, these are what she has to know Cleo by. These are a lot of questions I still have in my own life: What can you tell about the departed from what they leave behind? When is it right to let go? Once you accept objects as part of a person’s afterlife, can you ever let go?

In the morning, Jillian traced the sheets, and traced velvet and silk, and wondered who had woven the fabric that made Cleo’s gowns. She thought she recognized the sense of style behind their design. She imagined the hands—not long and slender like Robert’s, but broader, yet equally warm—measuring the cloth, and the keen, wide eyes judging its color. Selecting a piece that shimmered from pewter to turquoise, and then jade, and finally a ghostlike, shining gilt.

“They’re beautiful,” she told Rob.

“They could be resized to fit you,” he offered. The fine red marks from the ribbons hadn’t yet faded on his wrists and upper arms.

But she thought he looked relieved when she said, “I have plenty of clothes already, and they can fit somewhere else. Let’s leave these be.”

And what if, through the things they left behind, you find yourself falling in love?

All that said, this is probably one of the more perverted stories I’ve ever told. I don’t mean that judgmentally–just, maybe, as an enticement.

Her hair stood on end; goose bumps tingled beneath her silk robe. That was all she wore, besides a necklace from Robert. Links of silver joined pearls with stones as red and large as pomegranate seeds. Jillian went to the closet and flung open its doors. One hand rose to roll the gems against her collarbone as she stood looking.

Sundresses, evening dresses, dressing gowns, even ball gowns—a treasury of them. Garments rustled as her touch slipped through them, over them. She felt collars, hemlines, the drape of sleeves, even as she made her selection standing only in  necklace and negligée.

Then just the necklace.

Then nothing.

Pearls clattered on the polished wood of the tabletop beside the bed. Silk whispered in the folds over her arm. It licked her flesh like a thirsty thing.

Ever Dream of Me is available on Amazon in both a paperback and Kindle version.