The Ghost of a Marriage

1 December 2009

Alone again, she strains to push the too-heavy door shut.
It shouldn't be open. Why is it? Her neighbour's
nowhere to be seen, though the car's in the drive,
there are playing cards laid out on the table.
That night she watches the man next door
through binoculars. Her own husband
ridicules her suspicions. Aliens, he says,
not murder. It's the last thing you'd suspect, after all,
though it happens every day somewhere in the world.
She plucks a sliver of glass from her toe, but there's nothing broken
to explain it. She finds a key without a lock.
Steam from the bathroom. What lurks there, hidden
in the tub? The bath is full, but never filled.
She pulls the plug and screams
as the water sucks and whorls.

Psychiatry's the answer, they decide. She must be mad.
Fragile, let's say. Hurt somehow. To find out why
will solve all mysteries and rid their home of its ghost.
When talk effects no cure, she consults the spirits.
Darkness falls. The door creaks open
and in plods the family pooch. Such disappointment!
Such relief! Day follows day. She is too much alone
in the cold, blue house. The noises come again, and steam.
She rubs it away to show her own reflection
everywhere. Turning back, she finds the dead have scrawled their pleas
and accusations on her mirror. She flees.

Her husband thinks she resents him. (It's all about him, he thinks
− they always do, don't they? And she probably does
resent him – who wouldn't?) Back to the shrink,
since she accused her neighbour of killing his wife,
who promptly appeared, quite alive, at his side.
(It's all about couples and absences, those left behind. Was there once
a child?) There is a missing girl. The story of her disappearance
tumbles from its hiding place behind her husband's photograph.
(Which is telling, don't you think?) She believes
she has found her ghost. Her husband, of course, is furious. Don't talk to me
about ghosts! She won't be moved. Research leads her
to the missing girl's kin. (I'd like to go to bed,
but could I sleep not knowing
who the murderer is? I hunger
for the final twist that pulls all loose strands
taut and gives a meaning to all this suffering and confusion.
− I think her husband killed the girl! She suffers,
is haunted because she's the killer's wife!
Joined to his guilt by bonds of matrimony,
she now pays penance for her partner's crime,
must seek justice for the one who was wrongfully slain.)
Possessed, she tries to seduce him with her dangerous love,
then suddenly remembers all: his affair, how
she discovered them together in their house, her nearly fatal accident
soon after, in fact, attempted suicide. (Is that it, then?
The haunting: was that in fact no more
than the slow and painful re-emergence of buried truths?)

She returns to him in sleeting rain. The power's off.
He doesn't answer. The bath! He's in the bath!
Nearly shocked to death, an accident it seems,
but the power cut out just in time. (Those safety switches
really do save lives!) She thinks the dead girl's ghost
is trying to kill her husband. He claims she'd threatened
to kill herself, or to kill his wife, and then just disappeared.
(I don't believe him.) Together they burn
a lock of the dead girl's hair to break the spell.
She hugs her instrument, the gift she gave up
to be his perfect wife. But she forgives him finally.
And then the key – remember the key without a lock?
− falls from her robe, chimes like a tinkling bell
against the bathroom tiles. Now she must find out
where it fits (it will destroy her, destroy them).
She finds the box in the mud of the lake's bottom
at the end of the pier. The dead girl's necklace is inside.
She knows now. He denies it, claims
she killed herself, he merely disposed of the body,
tipping it from the bridge into the lake's dark heart.
On his knees he pleads. Forgive me!
Exhume her, she replies. Bring her into the light.

He phones the police and goes upstairs to change.
She's wearing the dead girl's necklace
when she follows him upstairs. She finds the phone he used
and not trusting, presses redial, gets only Information.
Now he must kill her too. He goes to work
quickly, without sentiment, without hesitation.
But before the final blow can be landed, he talks
and talks, confessing all, blaming her
for all his dreadful crimes. (Oh, yes. If only she'd been
a better wife!) He carries her to the bathtub. (All roads.
He will drown her, or she will survive by killing him. To come:
only the desperate and unlikely acts of the finale.)
He sees she wears the dead girl's necklace.
That won't do. Bending to pluck it from her neck,
he catches a flash of the dead girl's face, blue and swollen and changed
by the waters of the lake − panics, slips, cracks
his skull on the bathroom sink, and ingloriously
falls down dead. (Most accidents happen in the home;
most murders too.) Those spidery fingers crawling
to the lip of the tub are hers. His body, though,
isn't where it should be. He's downstairs, playing dead
or slowly dying. She's outside in a flash
with the keys to the truck, and off down the dark road
to the bridge (the bridge!). He's in the back, of course.

And so it goes, until in the final irony
he is drawn down to his watery grave by
the dead girl's ghost, rising from the depths of the lake
to grasp her revenge and free the woman
she once usurped. The torment is over.
She is beautiful again. A red rose on her tombstone signals peace
and time for bed. Matrimony has its dangers,
professors can be cads and monsters, and
two good women − one dead, one living – prevail
against one evil man. A balance is restored
for now at least. Tomorrow new crimes will howl for justice.
Until then, sweetheart, simply sleep.

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