by Ladee Caid
Elizabeth's husband didn't come home last night, so she sets out to find him.
|Willard, Elizabeth’s exasperated husband, had left the cottage evening last to prove the villager’s superstitions wrong. He scoffed at the town’s most stout who wouldn’t go near the crumbling castle on the hill for fear of ghosts, evil spirits, and a woman with hair of serpents that turned brawny men to stone with but a glance.
When her husband’s horse returned snorting and agitated without its rider before the sun had risen, Elizabeth’s heart beat in her throat making it hard for her to breathe. Her churning thoughts envisioned Willard lying somewhere in broken agony. Her every muscle tightened with the urge to find him. She secured his horse in the barn and jumped on the back of her own.
On the path to the long ago abandoned mansion, Elizabeth scanned the edges of the forest yelling her husband’s name. Crickets chirped, a loon called, and wooded growth rustled, but Willard never answered. At the foot of the castle’s hill, she tethered her stead to a sapling and followed a honeysuckle covered stone wall. The abandonment loomed in front of her as gray and oppressive as the fear in her chest.
While trudging up the hill, Elizabeth dropped her skirts wondering why she bothered trying to keep them dry in the early morning dew. The back hem had absorbed every droplet from the tall wet grass. Her feet and ankles ached from the damp chill. She regretted not taking the time to lace her boots, but urgency had spurred her to don her slippers instead.
She stepped onto an overgrown flagstone path that ended at an ornate, rusted gate. Elizabeth gripped the cold iron and peered through the bars. On the other side, fog blanketed what looked like a pristine garden. She couldn’t see far within, but a bed of red roses close to the gate stood full and proud. The flower’s perfumed aroma beckoned her. She needed a closer look, to touch the soft pedals, and bury her nose in the center of one of the flowers.
The metal hinges squealed as she pulled at the frame. Somewhere, a crow called as if to warn Elizabeth not to enter. Her fingers tightened around the latch, and she hesitated. She looked for the bird, but her vision couldn’t penetrate the fog. The roses’ scent touched her nose drawing attention back to the bush, and Elizabeth chastised her silly fear. The gate clicked shut behind her.
Past the bed of flowers, the stone walk forked. She could make out what looked like a statue beyond the dim. Elizabeth traipsed toward it through the heavy air. A naked woman of stone with frowning lips, one arm across her eyes, and the other jutted to the heavens stood upon decretive stones just off of the path. Elizabeth touched the elbow. The pads of her fingers glided over a smooth surface, and she marveled at the artist’s ability to create such an intricate piece of art. One could almost believe the lady to be real.
She looked around her. Who takes care of this garden? Surely no one lives within the decrepit walls of the castle. She could not tarry for long. Her husband needed her.
As Elizabeth continued, her shawl became saturated, her underskirt clung to her skin, and her eyelashes became heavy with moisture dripping on her cheek as if she were crying. She passed several life-size human stone works. All of them nude and each of them with expressions of surprise and anguish. One of the statues had bits of tattered cloth at its feet. Elizabeth wondered of the sculptor. Was the artist insane or a deviant?
A dark figure came into view. Elizabeth quickened her pace. She ran as she realized the black she saw was the cape of her husband. “Willard. Willard.” She called his name but he seemed not to hear. He remained with his back to her unmoving. When she reached him, she grabbed his shoulder. “Willard.” He stood stiff and cold. Elizabeth pulled her hand away, and his cloak fell to the ground. Her stomach tightened. She stepped around to face him.
Willard’s stone arms protruded as if to ward something. His face had been frozen in a grimace with mouth gaping, knitted brow, and eyes wide. Elizabeth put her hand to her mouth. Her chest felt as if it were being squeezed, and she gasped for breath. She became dizzy, stepped backward, and fell. Elizabeth looked up at her husband’s face again and wailed a chilling cry.
“How can this be? Are the legends true? Oh, my poor husband.” Elizabeth buried her face in hands between her legs and sobbed thinking of the torment he must have suffered. She felt so very heavy. This couldn’t be. She lay on the gravel hoping to melt into the ground. She cared not what happened to her, for her mind had been broken.
A familiar noise cut her weeping to an abrupt end. Elizabeth raised herself and listened. Yes, it was the swishing of a woman’s skirts. Elizabeth thought the sound to be one of the villagers. The person must have followed her. Then she heard the hiss of a snake and another.
Elizabeth rose without looking at the figure. She closed her lids and stepped to her husband’s side. She wrapped her arm around the small of his back, placed her other palm on his petrified heart, and leaned her head on his rock hard shoulder. With calm resolve, Elizabeth opened her eyes and stared into those of the Medusa.