She never sleeps
“Another sleepless night. I can’t stop thinking about the photos I found on my husband’s phone.”
Content advisory: Violence, horror, BDSM done very badly
Another sleepless night. I can’t stop thinking about the photos I found on my husband’s phone. What I saw was depressingly predictable. A young girl. Naked. Bound in a variety of stress positions. The girl looks a lot like I used to, before pregnancy and grief took their toll. Her gaze is intense and worshipful. Her breasts, with their perfectly centered areolas, look surprised.
I feel like an old woman. Ten years ago, I would have found these photos exciting, less a betrayal than a pungent break from the routine. I would have playfully chided my husband for keeping the tender young flesh to himself. And urged him to organize a threesome.
Alas, my threesome days are over. I do not find the young girl — God, I hope she’s of legal age — arousing at all. To me, she’s just an eviction notice. A warning siren. An unmistakable notice that my life is built on a crumbling foundation.
I watch my husband’s smooth, untroubled face as he dreams. He doesn’t lose sleep over anything, ever, a quirk to which I credit his outrageously good health. While I am constantly visiting doctors, enduring tests and waiting for elusive diagnoses, my husband is training for adventure races in faraway lands.
My swollen joints ache as I rise from the bed and walk slowly to the kitchen to make breakfast.
My husband sits at the kitchen table, waiting for his breakfast. I set a plate in front of him and fill his mug with coffee. The eggs are undercooked, perhaps rife with salmonella, the toast is carbonaceous, and the coffee weak and cold. Altogether, it’s barely edible. With a secret smile, I await his response.
“Thank you, honey,” he says, attacking his food.
I feel a wet, heavy despair gather behind my breastbone as he mops up cold runny yolk with blackened toast. I am horrified as he stuffs the gooey mess into his mouth and washes it down without comment. Despite my wide eyes, he eats mechanically. Absently.
I know I’m losing him. I long for the days when a botched breakfast could lead to a swift and memorable punishment. One time I burned the toast, and he made me kneel on a tray of dried lentils for twelve hours. My knees were dimpled and achy for days. Another time I had to remove steak knives from the kitchen floor with my teeth while blindfolded. I cut my lip and still treasure the small, white scar.
I gaze at him intently as he swallows the dregs of his coffee, willing him to notice me. He doesn’t. He’s enthralled by his phone. I wonder if he’s messaging the girl, giving her a list of tasks she must complete before they meet again. I look down at my hands and curse my thick, swollen joints.
At last, he’s done. He stands and attaches the phone to his belt. He brushes the crumbs from his lips and hoists his computer bag over his shoulder. His mouth opens slightly, as if he’s about to speak. My heart skitters in my chest. He strokes my hair, and I wonder if he’s going to grab a handful and yank it until blood drips from my scalp.
“See you tonight, dear,” he says. I wait until his footsteps fade to cry.
My home is my refuge and my prison. I’m on disability. My hands can no longer type fast enough to satisfy my employer. My knees are frozen, and any attempt to move them produces an icy, grinding pain. Even a short walk is intolerable. I spend my days in the house, cleaning. It’s an act of agony and devotion.
This afternoon, I’m in the basement, polishing the rack where I used to hang contentedly for hours. My husband would lazily flog me or force me to watch him play with one of several lovely, open-minded young women.
As I work, I let my gaze wander through the dungeon, caressing fondly remembered toys and structures with weary eyes. Somehow the dungeon feels different and subtly wrong. I wonder if it’s because I haven’t been here to play for months. Or because the last time I had a good night’s sleep I dreamed someone was here, in the dungeon, screaming.
When I recall the artful photos of the girl, in which her long, bruised body is draped against a glossy, sturdy frame, I realize she must have been here. In my house. My home.
Another one of my weekly devotions is waxing my husband’s 1966 Corvette. Although he almost never drives it, it’s his most prized possession. His eyes linger on its malignant orange chassis every time he enters the garage. Every Thursday, I worship before the alter of this vehicle, and painstakingly apply wax in a an even coat.
Today, I’ve decided, is going to different. Today, I’ve neglected to bring the premium wax and the special, chamois rags down to the chilly garage. Instead, I’m holding a long, sharp knife, one of the carving knives that I’m not allowed to touch, lest I inadvertently dull the blade, or somehow imbue it with my aura of lumbering frailty.
The knife is heavy and made for a strong, healthy man with rough, sinewy arms. No matter. I hold it steady with both hands and gouge its tip into the glossy orange paint. In that instant, I realize I’ve always hated that car. I take a deep, steadying breath, and move the knife around until I have made a messy, jagged scratch. My arms are shaking when I’m done, and I drop the knife onto the concrete floor.
I’m flushed and giddy, envisioning my husband’s anger and the punishment he will devise. This desperate passion adds a sweet poignancy to my slow, painful climb up the stairs.
Waiting. I hate waiting. I feel like I’ve been waiting forever.
My husband is no doubt still at work, charming colleagues and customers who strain to hear his every whisper. People love him. He’s a natural leader. His composure is seamless and impermeable.
Underneath that elegant shell, though, there’s a vein of molten passion that devours everything in his path. As the object of that intense heat, it’s impossible to imagine anything beyond that one, fiery moment. No past. No future. No anxiety.
Or, at least, that’s what I remember. Over the years, my husband built himself an impregnable carapace and shut me out. I’ve spent the past year trying to fracture it, despite my weakening body and restless mind.
I have high hopes for the damage I’ve inflicted on his car. I pray the rage will accumulate quickly and crack open his shell in a loud, beautiful explosion. Any collateral damage from flying shards will be absolutely worth it.
I hear the garage door open and close. My long vigil is ended. My husband is home. My heart is beating so fast I reach for my pills. The blue soothing ones that melt under my tongue and fill me with a cool, artificial calm.
I settle myself on the couch and wait for the heavy stomp of angry footsteps. I’m smiling insolently. He used to love getting me to smile and then wiping it off my face. But the sounds I long for never materialize. Instead, I hear the modest noise of practical bustle, of loading and unloading packages and repositioning items on shelves. I wonder if he’s been to the hardware store, or the automotive supply place that reeks so strongly of gas and vinyl.
These ordinary, homey sounds continue for a few minutes, and then I hear the soft squeak of someone opening the basement door. I wonder if he’s brought the girl. No, I decide, I’m being paranoid. He’s probably just in there to check that I’ve dusted and polished the rack. Or maybe he’s indulging in a quick, one-handed orgasm. I listen for the driving soundtrack of his favorite porn, but detect only silence.
When I finally hear quiet footsteps coming up the stairs, I feel another rush of adrenaline.
“Hi, honey,” he says with his usual gentle absence. My heart falls. Either he didn’t notice the scratch on the car, or he doesn’t care. I’m shocked. He loves that car and its gaudy curves.
“Sir, is there anything I can get for you?” I want to drop to my knees, but my joints are too stiff. I do my best to look supplicating with my eyes.
“No, dear.” He shakes his head. “I had dinner at the office. Busy day. I’m going to run on the treadmill and then hit the weights.”
He heads off to change out of his business suit. I remain on the couch, as if I’m carved in stone.
He brought the girl here. I’m sure of it. I can hear the empty whir of the treadmill without a runner. In the foreground are low grunts and the characteristic thwack of leather connecting with flesh. I know she’s here. I know it. And yet I can’t bring myself to hobble down the stairs and confront him. I concede defeat, surrender to my immutably submissive nature, and turn on the TV.
I watch a reality show about beautiful people misbehaving. I hope it will take me far away from my tired, racing thoughts. I want to lose myself in the narcotic pleasure of feeling superior, so I try to focus on the dramatis personae, and their conflicting goals.
It’s no use. I can’t bring myself to care about the self-destructive antics of college students and bartenders. I take an anxiety pill and allow myself to drift. I feel drowsy and wonder if I’ll cross the border into sleep.
My thoughts become fuzzy and dreamlike, my husband and the girl mixing with the glossy people on TV. He’s telling her he loves her, that he and his wife have grown apart. Now he’s asking her to crawl to him, through the mud, in her heels and satin evening dress.
Wait a minute, I think. That’s not my husband or the girl at all. Instead, all I’m seeing is a lovely, spoiled college student crawl through the mud where the host is waiting to reward her with either a scholarship or some new humiliation.
I shut off the TV and listen carefully. I hear low, bass moans and high, soprano moans. My husband and the girl. It must be. I wonder if this blatant aria is an invitation or an insult. Since I can’t imaging watching their lithe, healthy bodies without also experiencing a deep, bone-thumping rage, I decide to go to bed.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get some sleep.
I’m wide awake when my husband sneaks into our bedroom. He is expression is both furtive and self satisfied. For a brief moment I want to smack him. Hard.
“Still awake, honey?” he murmurs.
“Yes, Sir,” I say, pretending to read a book. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” His face is all ruddy innocence. His brow is slightly moist. I can tell he’s been exerting himself. I wonder if he’s also been drinking. I remember when he would leisurely flog me over the course of an evening, sipping his way through a bottle of red wine.
I look into his eyes. They’re placid. Sated. Patiently waiting for my reply.
“The screaming.” I purposely leave off the Sir, hoping he’ll react. He doesn’t. “Don’t lie to me.”
“I don’t hear anything, sweetie. Maybe it’s your new meds?” His benign concern is offensive and superficial. My face flushes and my heart lurches into the irregular, lurching rhythm that no doctor has been able to adequately treat. I reach for another pill.
“It’s not my fucking meds. You’ve got that girl down in the basement.” I gasp. I never talk this way to my husband. Never. I’m becoming a bitter, old woman. No wonder he’s treating me with such kind indifference.
He looks at me sadly and shakes his head. “I’m not going to do this right now. I’m going to get some sleep. You should, too.”
He undresses casually. I can see the scratches running down his back. I can still hear the screams.
My husband is sleeping. His light snoring is as soothing as a cat’s purr. His face is unlined and relaxed, the face of someone who can climb trees, scamper up mountains and sleep under the stars. I used to be able to keep up with him, to share his tent. Now I stay buried at home while he has adventures.
I’m awake and staring into the darkness, no longer pretending to read. It’s like my body has forgotten how to sleep, just like it’s forgotten how to do so many other things. I read someplace that laboratory rats can die of insomnia if you keep them awake for long enough. I bet the same thing could happen to humans.
The screams are softer now. Wearier. I feel a tug, an urge to visit the basement and see the girl for myself. I wonder if my husband will disapprove, or even care. I tell myself that he wouldn’t have left her here, in our dungeon, alone and screaming, if he didn’t intend for me to find her.
I get out of bed slowly and carefully. I allow my legs to dangle for a moment. My feet tingle as the blood rushes into them. My knees are hugely swollen and object loudly when my feet hit the floor. I move across the room one small, excruciating step at a time. I realize I’ve overindulged my vanity by declining the doctor’s prescription for a walker.
I rest against the door frame and take one last look at my husband. He’s still sleeping, still the picture of handsome vitality and effortless control. I love him, and I hate him. I turn away and begin my trek down the hallway to the top of the stairs. As I walk, it occurs to me that my husband’s behavior with the girl has been cavalier, even dangerous.
I’ve never been one to spend a lot of time with the local BDSM community — I prefer the shroud of secrecy and its whiff of the taboo — but even I know that leaving someone bound, alone, and in distress is reckless, even antisocial. Having a reputation for irresponsible play can make finding healthy, undamaged partners almost impossible. I’m unsure what my husband thinks he’s doing.
The stairs are steep and covered with polished wood. I feel as if I’m descending a mountain. I clutch the hand rail and focus on my breath. I will myself to be calm, but it doesn’t work. My heart is careering from beat to beat at irregular intervals. Adrenaline floods my veins, and I wonder if this mundane errand will be my last. Perhaps my husband will find my body, crabbed and broken, at the foot of the stairs. I hope he won’t let the girl, still in her immortal years, gawk at my corpse.
I collapse on the landing, and try to recapture my breath. My heart slowly quiets, and I start to notice the soft, familiar sounds of the house: the low hum of the central heater, the purr of the refrigerator, the gentle settling of the foundation. The screams are gone. I listen closely. I think I can hear low, defeated sobs. I feel a moment of sympathy for the girl, who is no doubt young, scared and alone, and a twinge of anger at my husband.
I sit up and rest against the wall. My joints are burning. I glance down at my knees; they’re pink, swollen and tender to the touch. My feet and ankles are misshapen. I remember when I used to have pert, pretty feet with painted red nails. I could get a pedicure without pain, or the awkwardness of disgusting the aesthetician. Now my nails are long and yellow. Sometimes they grow into the soft skin of my toes.
The basement is at the bottom of another set of stairs. My mind is racing, but my body cannot rise from the floor. Awake I remain, waiting, gathering strength.
The door to the basement is unlocked and slightly ajar. I softly step inside. I hear snuffling and sighs, the resignation that follows a storm of tears.
Before I enter the main room, I take a black, leather hood from the rack and place it over my head. I know I look ridiculous: a stooped, thickened middle aged woman in a floral nightdress from WalMart with the head of a dominant beast. I almost laugh out loud.
As I creep into the main room, one plodding step after another, the girl rises from a nest of blankets. She is naked, except for the chains that connect her to the rack, and she is flimsy. Her thighs are narrow, her ribs prominent, and her breasts small. Her back is streaked with shallow cuts, and her upper thighs are mottled with bruises. She’s completely hairless — probably the result of assiduous waxing — but I worry again about her age.
“Who’s there?” she cries in a hoarse, worn voice. “Is it you, Sir?” Her arms break out in goose pimples, and she hugs herself, as if to ward off the cold.
I step around the corner, filled with what I think are good intentions.
“Are you alright? Is this all consensual?” My voice is muffled by the mask. I hope she can understand me.
The girl looks at me, confused. Her expression shifts from fear to pouting. She’s disappointed to see me.
“Did my master send you?” She looks expectant, worshipful.
“No,” I say. “I heard the screaming, and wanted to check on you. Is everything OK?”
“I’m fine,” she says, coldly. “I only need what my master gives me.”
“Then why were you screaming?”
“I was weak. I should have remained silent, like he asked me to.” She stands straighter and lets her arms drop to her side, giving me an unobstructed view of her breasts.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty one. I’m studying to be a doctor.”
“Is your master paying for your education?” It’s a shot in the dark, but it wounds. The girl’s face flushes, as do her breasts.
“I’m his property. I’m more valuable to him if I’m successful.” Her face is no longer scared and submissive. Now it flashes with the natural pride of youth and beauty.
I sink down on a chest filled with whips of many different sizes. The girl watches me, wary as a cat. I suppose my husband can afford to send her to school if he wants to. We’d planned to have children, but two of our three pregnancies ended in miscarriage and our third — the one we pinned all our hopes to — ended in a stillbirth. All that remains of these phantom children is the money we saved to ease their way through life.
I let my eyes wander along the wall, and something catches my attention. It’s a cat-o-nine-tails, with a rough wooden handle, sitting innocently on a low shelf. I realize the shelf is within my limited reach and extend my arm. The cat feels good in my hand. I bring it down against the shelf. The resulting thwack makes me smile.
I turn towards the girl, cradling the cat in my hand. Her proud posture seems to wilt a little. I am unaccountably pleased.
“He told me not to talk to you,” says the girl, her voice uncertain.
I say nothing, hiding behind my mask and enjoying her fear. I take one step closer. She tries to back away, but she’s chained.
“I don’t want to play with you!” she shrieks. No one does, I think to myself. My brain seems filled with a loud, buzzing sound. The buzzing flows through my limbs and becomes an energizing vibration. It’s been years since I felt this good. I feel warm, supple, powerful.
I raise the cat. I’m poised to strike. I’m delirious with a strange, sweet fever.
My arm is so tired I can barely move it. The girl’s back, arms, and outer thighs are a bloody mess. She is curled in the fetal position, crying softly. The fever is receding. All that’s left is the consciousness that I have crossed a line into a dark country, and the renewed aching of my joints.
I look at the girl and wonder what’s going to happen. She needs medical attention for blood loss, or maybe shock. I could call an ambulance and leave her outside, on the corner. Even better, I could pack her off in a cab with a suitable payoff. But something must be done. I close my eyes, more exhausted than ever. It occurs to me that the girl may decide to involve the criminal justice system.
As I try to decide what to do, the girl’s sobs seem to take on greater form and clarity. I realize she’s repeating something, over and over, like a mantra. I listen closely: “Old bitch. Fat bitch. Ugly bitch. Going to jail. Old bitch. Fat bitch. Ugly bitch. Going to jail.”
The girl’s words leave me cold with fear. I don’t understand how I could have been so rash, so stupid, so cruel. I know I’d never survive in prison. My health is fragile, and I hate the unbroken company of women. Suicide, I decide, would be easier. I easily have enough pills to assemble a lethal dosage. My life has become so dull and shrunken that perhaps it’s time to tear away the veil.
My darkening thoughts are interrupted by soft footsteps. I assume I’ve been discovered by the police, that I’m about to be arrested and borne away by casually brutal public servants. Instead, I see my husband, with his handsome, inscrutable face, taking in the scene.
My husband’s presence is a tonic for the girl, who stops crying and rises quickly to her feet, like someone who has seen her only chance. “Look what that old bitch has done!” she cries, turning around, showing off her wounds.
My husband looks at the girl and smiles, rage and malice crackling across his face. It warms my soul, although I’m saddened to see it directed at the girl.
“I told you to be quiet,” he growls. “I told you she never sleeps.”
The girl flinches and wraps herself in a blanket.
“When you left, you said you would just be a minute! You never came back! It’s cold down here! And dark! I was afraid!” The girl’s words tumble out, each crashing into the next. The effect is shrill and childish and whiny: everything my husband hates.
My husband approaches the girl. She sinks to her knees and looks into his eyes. I don’t know what she expects: a kiss, a slap, a gentle touch? Her eyes are wide and confused, as are mine behind the mask. We are both shocked when my husband reaches out his large, strong hands and wraps them tightly around the girl’s neck. I stare, unbelieving, as her face changes color from white to red to blue, and the spark of life leaves her eyes.
Elizabeth Bathory was one of the great female criminals of all time. She bathed in the blood of tender young virgins, hoping to recapture the smooth skin and lithe limbs of her youth. She started with serfs and orphans, girls who could disappear under the surface of life without making a ripple. When their blood didn’t work, she sought out the most beautiful and promising of the local villagers’ daughters, the flower of the peasantry. When even their blood left her skin wrinkled and her flesh sagging, she turned to the daughters of the petty nobility. And that was her undoing.
The petty nobles appealed to her uncle, the Palatine, who sent an army to her castle nestled high the Carpathians. She was seized and tried in secret for her countless crimes. Her family, loathe to lose her sizeable holdings to the Hapsburg king, forbade her execution. Instead, they bricked her inside a small, windowless chamber where she existed for four, long years. The smell of decay and the accumulation of untouched food signaled her death.
And, now, Elizabeth and I have something in common. My husband is nailing boards across the door to our guest room, where I will be staying indefinitely. He’s already boarded up the windows. I will have no natural light, only a small lamp. My possessions will be meager: a few changes of clothes, a pad and paper, and whatever books my husband approves. I will receive food and medicine through a small slot in the door. Unlike Elizabeth, I will have a toilet, and am efficiency shower.
I feel bad about the girl. Terrible. I shouldn’t have beaten her. I really shouldn’t have looked on while my husband choked the life from her. And yet I feel light and free. I have my husband back and I think, for once, I’m going to get a good night’s sleep.