I took a trophy from my husband, beast that he was. I hung him by his hind legs, draped him over the dry dirt floor of our garden shed, pushed the tip of my blade up the backs of his shins, around the ankles, separated flesh and fur from muscle, dug my fingers, the half moons pearls of my nails into the seams of his body, until all that was soft, all that was lovable about him hung from a base just below his tail. I unwrapped my husband of his coat, left his body mottled and smooth, a redness made for catching dust.
He had called me Princess when he wanted to remind me that ours was not an equal love. Or, perhaps, to guilt me for not loving him as truly and purely as he felt I should. I was above him and below, the place he carved for himself shifting with his temperament but holding, always, to this fissure between us. Princess, he would say, when I took you from your mother and father, remember that you came willingly. Or, Princess, you are the only bride I have ever cared for, the only one I ever could.. His words were theater only for himself, a stage play, a pantomime that preceded his pacing in our bedroom night after moonless night. He would call me Princess and I would perform my role, be the idle creature he wanted me to be, the hateful thing. Did I yawn and drape the hair across my pillow? Did I wait for the show to be over? For sleep to come as he repeated his routine of wringing hands? Of imbibing too much? Of raising his voice and muttering discontent? I did, I would. I was his bitter princess until the hour grew late enough that he would begin to growl, until finally he would fall to all fours and arch his back and run howling into the night.
He called me Princess though he was a monster and I had already become something like the queen of the vampires; a waking, lily-fingered death that haunts these chambers, the place of our mutual annihilation. He called me Princess because I was, because I am. He called me Princess when I was taken without the prick of a spinning wheel or the bite of a poisoned apple, when those old lands flowered with infection, when my half-starved brain saw a world at the edge of my windowpane and vowed to leave and become a part of it. He called me Princess even when I stepped forward to go with him, when I said that I would, when we stood in front of a thin-lipped minister and exchanged tokens, magical objects; when we kissed for only the second time and I did not recoil at the lingering taste of carrion on his tongue. Even then I knew he cut his teeth on bones, on fresh corpses. Even then I knew our life together would be naught but emptied bottles and flights into the woods, an endless spate of empty games and escalating insults. We loved each other in our filth, in our own way, we loved to hate each other as the old lands died out and we agreed that we, too, would decay on our own terms outside the city. He called me princess when he was a beast, a troll, a goblin, a crooked little man; he could not speak when he was his monstrous self, when he was wolf.
He was my husband, but I called him dog. When he returned from the woods each passing dawn, from wherever it is that wild things go, he would whimper and scratch at the door. His claws carved marks I used to tally aloud the days I had suffered him, each one a different reason, another cut that I would have to make. He was bound by his animal shape the way that I am bound to my own vices, I suppose, my own hag’s curse of indifference, my own reasons for retreating to these woods, the self-loathing that convinces me – perhaps – that I love him. I’m sure he suffered in this state, I know it to be so, but, you see, he was too rarely man and too frequently creature. My dog husband, this beast, this snarling demon.
I took a trophy from my husband, held all that he was inside out and debated what to do with it, whether it was something I should stitch back on him still, something I should wrap myself in still bleeding. There was the stain of him already on me. All those tallied days became so many years, and yet I could not deny that I wanted to clutch his fur to my chest even as the knife in my hand drizzled his blood into the dirt. I wanted to hold on to him, or must have, since to my great horror, I started to cry.
I called him dog, but loved him best when he was animal, when he did not try too hard to bring me all those faded roses. When he presented me with sacrifices, his only prey, the carcass of a fawn, a trio of stained ermines, badgers, dried bullfrogs, pretty little birds dragged to the door. When he was not too proud a beast to curl, soft and silent, beside me; to sleep off his sullen nature, that white tail long enough to sweep the floor at our side. I loved him best when he could not speak in his con-man’s voice, when he was not able to use the words that were reminders of what I had left, of the choices we had made. When he could not call me Princess or say that I was his. I loved him when he slept quietly as I sang verses of songs I tried not to forget, as I wrote letters to people I hoped were still well, as I picked the ticks out of his fur, prepared stews for myself from the creatures he’d killed, fattened him up, and looked at my pallid reflection in the bedroom mirror. In the glass I could still see the finery I once had— the dress that shone like the sun, the earrings like captured moon beams, the cloak of intricately matched pelts; of so many of his kin. I called him dog, and he was – snow white, a nocturnal creature who would awaken only to gnaw at the bones of rabbits, to lick his chapped paws, to listen to my stories without understanding.
These were the moments I felt most that I could love him. These were the moments in which, perhaps, I did.
I took a trophy from my husband, though, and this act is irreversible, more than a curse, much more than a binding spell. When I left with him I had wanted to leave our fevered city for something that shined, something other than this moth-ravaged cottage on the edge of the wood. When I left with him it was not to keep a sleeping house pet, not to calm the nerves or soothe the ego of a husband tormented by his own shifting somnambulism, not to adopt a stillness in my eyes or to become the sleeping beauty of this woods, not to watch a dog scavenge while my own hunger overcame me.
He called me princess, but I called him dog; beast that he was. We were not to be, I told him. Our love was never equal, this princess did not sleep. I took a trophy from my husband and I will tell you it was deserved, just as I told him, just as he knew I always would, just as the fissure grew between us. I clutch the trophy close, cling to it in the quiet, and yet I am crying still. And yet I am crying still.
Jessica Berger is a Chicago-based writer and a founding editor of Grimoire Magazine. Her work has been featured (or is forthcoming) in Pank, Ninth Letter, trnsfr, Gamut, The Spectacle, Maudlin House, Moonsick, and elsewhere.