Judith vs Bluebeard
Judith heard the horses and then the coach rattle over the cold cobles beneath the castle. It would return to her home, and then she would be here until her husband died. She was sure he wouldn’t. He was thought to be over 125 years old.
She heard him talking to the servants and then the door creak as he entered. She didn’t turn to him, but waited for him to make the first move. She was surprised to feel his hands on her shoulders as he gently turned her to him.
‘This is me, your lover and husband-to-be, and once I have made you my wife, there will be no way back to your old life. Look well and tell me if you wish to stay or go.’
Judith stared at the rugged face and its huge, full blue-tinged beard.
‘Think well,’ she heard him order. ‘Entry to my castle is final. Take your freedom if you want it.’
She couldn’t believe her own foolhardiness. He was prepared to release her, despite the contract. But she knew she couldn’t return to her home. She would be a pauper, without protection, if she left. Freedom beckoned, but she still said, ‘I’ll stay.’
‘You wonder, no doubt, why I am prepared to release you. Men in my position, don’t usually give up their possessions, without good reason. I’ll tell you. I observed you in the coach. You can divine things that should remain forbidden, hidden to a wife.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘You have a strange woman’s sagacity that I can’t fathom. This mustn’t challenge my power.’
Judith hesitated. She had to get her answer right. Was he hinting she was a witch?
‘You are right.’ Judith said it with contemplation. ‘But should you have secrets from me? Shouldn’t one know everything about one’s lover, one’s husband?’
‘Perhaps, but then you need to get rid of that moral compass. Having second insights is all very well, but you can’t misuse them. You have vowed to take me, without reservation, but I sense your secret wishes. This could end badly for you.’
Judith shuddered in the cold air, or was it fear of the uncharted ground she was treading? She must turn the tables, take control, but without him realising. She was using her special powers, which must remain hidden to him, but he had already divined her.
‘You must have insights, too,’ she assured him. ‘I’m not surprised. Sharing a bed, a table, your hearth, means that we will know all secrets, sooner or later. Don’t we all have seven secrets to our character? They are revealed in marriage, through the doors of our minds. I can clearly see your doors. Can’t you see mine?’
She listened to his empty laugh.
‘I’ve never heard that one. Why seven? And who will open my doors?’ His face took on a stern countenance as a stray thought occurred to him. ‘Or, are doors a metaphor I haven’t understood?’ He continued. ‘Then let your doors be shut to me. I have ultimate and total power within my lands. I have total access to your body, now you have decided to stay. Your doors are nothing to me,’ he mocked.
She tried not to laugh. How naïve he was if he thought it were so simple to control a person. His servants took orders, out of fear of a beating or dismissal. He didn’t need access to their minds – to their souls. He hadn’t deduced what a foe she could be. Or was he mocking her? Was this double bluff? Caution was still paramount, if she were to survive and take his kingdom.
She looked into his eyes. It was an inappropriate stare, rude, impolite – the sort of scrutiny that infants give a stranger, without embarrassment. He didn’t look away, but withstood the examination. She noticed his mounting anger, which flashed across his face.
‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘What do you see?’
Her voice sank to a whisper.
‘A torture chamber, dripping with blood.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he hissed.
Now she saw him evade her gaze. Time to change the subject. She had already said too much on this one.
‘Can I open the curtains? It’s bright outside and so eerie in here. Now my eyes are accustomed to the light, I can see how cold and damp the walls are. Condensation runs down them. Can’t we light the fire? How can the day be so bright and warm and your house so cold?’
‘Leave the curtains!’ He paused to consider her words. ‘You see a torture chamber in my eyes?’
Judith admitted, ‘Yes, but perhaps, it is my own fear I bring with me from my past.’
‘Why are you here?’ He demanded. ‘You can still flee.’
Now he was shouting, but she remained calm.
‘I notice you haven’t denied my observation. Tell me. Are you the torturer or tortured?’
He evaded her question, but instead repeated, ‘Why did you come with me?’
‘Have you never been intrigued by the bizarre?’ she asked.
He was silent. She had noticed his forearm muscles relaxing, after his recent rage. Bristling, blood-gorging muscles had receded. Protruding blue veins flattened, but her last question reversed his temper. He clenched his fist and looked awesome in his fury, but she felt no fear.
‘You have that look again,’ she heard him shout. ‘Stop searching,’ but her mind was busy unravelling the next mystery.
‘You are a rich man, who rarely has to work, and then, never physical toil. Why are your muscles those of a labourer – of your own ditch-digger?’
He swiped her across the face with the leather gauntlet he was still holding. The studs drew blood from her upper lip. She vowed to herself, that he would one day regret that violence. She had provoked him by calling him a ditch-digger, but now she had the upper hand. She understood him and all his doors.
He softened his look, but she spotted the effort it cost. She knew faces betrayed thoughts. She must conceal her insights.
‘Are you opening doors again?’ he demanded. ‘Which one this time?’
She fixed him with that stare.
‘I just saw your armoury, silhouetted through your eye, held in that studded gauntlet. What do you need that for, in my presence? Your armoury and treasury,’ she continued, remembering her words about his wealth. She knew she had revealed herself to him.
‘Ah’, he drawled, ‘My treasure house. It’s my gold that keeps you.’
‘Not at all,’ she lied. ‘I have money enough.’
‘One never has enough,’ he mocked. ‘I wonder what is behind the doors that preceded your wealth.’
‘Perhaps, I was lucky. Someone else did the torturing and conquering for me – before my time.’
‘Nevertheless,’ he argued, ‘You don’t deny your gold is bloodstained, too.’
Guilt stabbed her. Is one never free of avarice, not even in the bedroom?
‘Don’t stop now!’ She felt his face close to hers. ‘Look into my soul, as deeply as you can, while you still have the chance,’ he urged.
She let their eyes meet again. His were beautiful, and the rugged, but perfect features of his brow destroyed any residual wish in her, to leave him. Lust was filling her breast. Her eyes blurred behind unruly tears and his beard washed into a garden of great beauty – albeit, watered with blood from his mouth. She wiped her eyes with a sleeve. The blood disappeared, leaving only the garden.
She felt him seize the moment, take her and force her roughly onto the marriage bed. She didn’t try to resist. As she let his movement excite her, she turned her head, and from the new angle, saw the sunlight behind the curtain. A shaft glanced his head and illuminated a secret garden in his long thick red hair – a garden of unrivalled beauty. There were sculptures, perfectly aligned between vast and dense clouds of roses and plants that thwarted her efforts at identification. Waterfalls, fruits, rocky promontories hung with exotic birds, filled her vision.
His movements subsided. Now she could focus and saw that the birds were picking at corpses, and that the waterfalls were tinged red, the roses scarlet, fronting lilacs of pure black. A passing cloud uncovered the afternoon sun and bathed the room in evening red.
She felt his weight lift and his gaze follow hers as he rested on one elbow. She rose, straightened her smock and pulled back the drape. Light flooded the room, warming the air, but causing a shiver to shake her. She noticed that the condensation running down the walls was tinged with red. She tasted it. Salty.
She turned to gaze at him, dragging her eyes from the window view, the view of his vast kingdom, seemingly without edges, a universe that disappeared in unending splendour, where every aspect hinted at the riches of this man – her man – and the ochre sunlight spoiled it for her, with that reminder of the blood he had spilt to get it.
‘Stop now,’ he commanded, but she thought his voice irresolute. The red disappeared as the exposed sun caused pure white light to flood the room. She turned to him. His face was in shadow, but his body dappled with beams, reflecting from a vast mirror at the head of the bed. Now the room warmed and the feeling of dampness receded. The play of light entranced. She fancied he was surrounded by water, floating. This was some kind of mirage, but from where should the heat come? Nevertheless, she felt encouraged. Perhaps the first five doors could be ignored, but her optimism was dispelled. She listened to the water. There it was again – the sighs of grief as the surface shimmered and waves lapped at the edges.
‘You have seen enough. Go no further, I beg you.’ His voice was contrite, pleading even. Gone was the power person of distended muscles.
‘Why, why my love?’ She answered. ‘The red between us is gone. You are so beautiful, seem to be resting in a lake. How the light can play tricks. Is it a trick of the light?’
Lake of tears
She stepped to him and as her feet touched the light display, the sighs became louder. She stooped and touched the shimmer, and was amazed to feel wetness. Without thinking, she put her damp finger to her lips. It too, was salty.
‘Where does this water come from?’
She watched his head droop, and his tears fall into the dappled light show. The sighs stopped as his tears touched. The water disappeared as a cloud past over the garden.
‘Stop now,’ he pleaded. ‘There is nothing more to see. Just love me as I am, as you know me.’
‘There is nothing more? There is no seventh door?’ She quizzed him.
She waited for his answer. Nothing came.
‘There is a seventh door,’ she exclaimed.
She watched him slide exhausted to the floor, but he couldn’t resist the impulse to turn and look at a series of pictures on a remote unlit wall. She noticed he was sweating and realised the room had become too hot for comfort.
She reached and stroked his forehead and fancied a strand in his beard hair was her naked torso. The moment was broken when he took her arm and pushed her hand away with a rough action. She was fighting for air now, as the temperature continued to rise, but the pictures demanded her attention. He didn’t resist as she released his grip on her arm and walked toward the wall.
Three portraits were of women of stunning beauty, draped across luxurious garden furniture. They were hung with heavy jewels, including ostentatious wedding rings, drinking finest wines with sweetest morsels. ‘Trophy wives,’ she concluded, but noticed the pictures distort and show signs of scorching in the unbearable heat.
The pictures had brass plates on the bottom span of the frames. ‘Fortune,’ she read and, ‘Horn of Plenty’. In the third picture, named ‘The Way We Live Now,’ a woman studied Beardsley’s print of Salomé, holding up the head of John the Baptist, blood pouring from the severed neck. She noticed, it wasn’t a print, but a photograph of a real head and torso.
The fourth picture was of an empty bench in the same garden. This frame, too, carried a small brass label. She barely managed to decipher the text as smoke and flames filled the room.
‘The Settled Account,’ she read aloud.
The original title to this story was A kékszakállú herceg vára; literally: The Blue-Bearded Duke’s Castle and is a one-act expressionist opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. The libretto was written by Béla Balázs, a poet and friend of the composer, and is written in Hungarian, based on the French literary tale La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault, itself based on an older tale, thought to emanate from Normandy. My reworking uses the setting, 2 figures and seven secrets from Balázs’s libretto. That apart, it is original.