His first memory was of darkness.
A steady stream of water drizzled, drizzled, drizzled—uneven and arbitrary, somewhere far yet close, adding to that ever-growing melody echoing through the small cellar. He could not tell where the sound came from, but after years of listening to those haunted hymns, he had learned to accept it.
Some days, the melodies were loud. If he had to describe the screams of hell, his mind would immediately drift to those sounds: gnarly, pointed, and grating, almost like the devilish chirps of a cuckoo tainted with the darkness of its heart.
On other days, they were soft, gentle like a warm greeting, a homecoming. These were the best days. The darkness would thin as an invisible blanket of security wrapped around him. There was still no light, but he did not need one. Security was hope in and of itself.
The worst days were the ones of deafening silence because all they brought were great oceans of despair. He would drown in them, gasping for breath, stretching his chin above the unforgiving waves, screaming, mercy, mercy, mercy. . .
The silence never showed pity, not until the melodies returned, but that was fine. Like everything else, he had learned to accept it.
No matter what day it was or how horrible he felt, his world was limited to the cellar. He often wondered what it was like outside, to fly like the melodies cursing his life, to stretch his legs and run farther and farther and farther, to open his eyes to a heaven of sun and light. Free. Open. Unchained.
As time passed, he nearly forgot everything about the outside world, the fragmented memories slipping like sand through his fingers, but that was fine, too. His brain might not remember, but his body did. He could still taste the fresh air on his tongue, hear the howls of the whistling breeze in his ears, picture blurry fields behind his eyelids, feel the rough wheat under his fingers, and smell the aroma of flowers flaring in his nostrils.
He remembered indeed, and he always would. No matter how low he sank, how much he was debased, he would remember. And that was all he needed.
* * *
In his small world, there was a door. Sometimes, it opened; most of the time, it didn’t. But when it did, she came: his mother.
He had loved her once when the tides were low and the sun high, when the air rang with laughter and the songs of the passerines, when a family of four lived happily in their secluded cottage in the woods. But where there once lived four, now lived three, two, one, until only vestiges of the past remained.
He had loved her once, but those days, those soft eyes full of love, were so far away—and further still when the first whips came. Then the next. Then some more. Years of this treatment taught him not to ask for a reason, but he still wondered between his screams and pained sobs.
His father had abandoned them for another woman, and his sister had passed away when their poverty could not save them from starvation. He could still feel the mourning, the desolation, but beneath all that burned a great, raging inferno.
Anger. It slithered into their cottage like a demonic snake from the ancient tales he had heard as a child, and when it consumed his mother, she no longer regarded him with soft eyes of love. It was that anger that brought him here, not his mother, who dragged him by his hair, shoved him into the cellar, and blamed him for his father’s departure. Who visited daily only to scorn, whip, and curse him.
It was not his mother’s fault. That was his truth, an axiom of sorts, the only thread holding him over the edge of insanity. It was the influence of evil spirits, not his mother. Never her.
Crimson pooled under his limp body, joining the other layers of congealed blood flaking over the floorboards. He was still breathing to his surprise. That only filled him with disappointment.
When his mother left, trailing the red end of her lash through the blood, he listened to the melodies and recalled memories of the outside world. But today, they were not enough to ease the daggers impaling his heart.
* * *
He did not know when it started, but it was there. That was all that mattered.
Days passed, or years—time was relative with no way to measure it. But sometime between then and now, a feeling he could only describe as discontentment began to swell in his heart like bruised flesh beaten purple.
He never acted on it, no. But every time he felt the unforgiving ends of his mother’s lash sink into his inflamed flesh, it manifested in small gestures. A twitching finger. A cold glare. A shaky huff. The more it expanded, the further it rose, higher and higher, like a guillotine ascending towards the heavens. And like all things, gravity inevitably brought it crashing down.
It happened when the routine shattered, when his mother, instead of whipping him, wrapped her hands around his neck and squeezed—harder and harder until breathing was a luxury of the past.
It came to him then—discontentment. It permeated his senses, sent his blood rushing forward and backward at once, and blinded him with the instinctive urge to run away, to beat his mother, to breathe. Then, the guillotine fell. He did not want to die.
Why was she doing this? He did not know, but still, he kicked and punched and scratched and screamed. All he knew was that she—his poor, lonely mother—planned to kill him, so he hit her, again and again, to drive it home. He did not want to die.
His attacks were futile, so in a desperate last-ditch effort, he shoved his thumbs into his mother’s eye sockets until her wails reverberated in his ears, until blood dripped onto his cheeks. Kicking her away, he dashed through the door and sprinted as fast as his pubescent legs allowed.
Up the stairs, past each turn, he ran for his dear life as adrenaline singing in his veins addled his brain. Those wretched melodies dogged his heels, crescendoing like a climax of a blaring symphony until he finally burst out of a second door. Suddenly, the world became silent.
He found himself in a familiar kitchen, only that three pairs of wide eyes stared at him. A father, daughter, and son preparing dinner. Under the scrutiny, he became more aware of the blood staining his bare skin, the grime greasing his matted hair, but in his shock, he could not bring himself to care.
He looked around. Same table. Same kitchen. Same cottage. But different people. A terrible twist of fate. Jamais vu. He shook his head, taking a hesitant step back when his mother emerged from the depths of the cellar behind him, her eyes closed and her cheeks bloodied with scarlet tears.
“Come here, boy!” she screamed. “Come here right now!”
Words were on his tongue, but they refused to leave his gaping mouth. All he could let out were inhuman croaks and sobs. Quiet remnants of the melodies played in the far background, nearing every passing second. He was screeching like a dying bird, tearing out his hair, shouting his broken axiom that was no longer true.
There was no evil spirit to blame. It was his mother’s fault. It always was. At that moment, the only thread holding him over the edge snapped, and he fell into the abyss of insanity. The loud songs defeaned him to the commotion and muted cries.
He wanted them all dead, wanted her dead.
Letting out a wail akin to a battle cry, he smacked everything off the table. Cutlery and plates shattered, and soup spilled over the wooden floors.
He fought against the hands threatening to restrain him, snatched a knife from the ground, and stabbed away, sinking the metal tip into the soft skin of whoever was in front of him.
As he destroyed whatever lay in his path, he stumbled upon burning coals in a hearth. Without hesitation, he grabbed handfuls of them and threw them all over the ground, the straw, the wood.
Before anyone could stop him, he flung himself at his mother with his knife in both hands and slashed at her face until she was unrecognizable. Smoke from the crackling flames filled the air. Panting and coughing, he crawled out of the burning cottage and away to the nearby forest, where he propped himself up against a tree.
Letting go of his knife, he watched as the foundations trembled and the cottage roof collapsed. All was quiet save for the popping of wood. As he saw the flames burn bright under the setting sun, the thrill of adrenaline faded along with the discontentment searing his heart.
After a long while, he found himself at peace, and through his tears, he could not help but laugh.
* * *
On the road, he met a wayfaring family, lords from the neighboring town of Toulouse. They were a generous bunch, so much so that they took pity on him and offered him food and shelter. Coincidentally, they had a son—young, about the same age and height.
His name was René Devereaux. It was a lovely name, they said. A lovely name indeed.
* * *
The boy who was once nameless adopted the persona of René Devereaux with ease. The townsfolk adored René, whispered about the tragic loss of his family to the hands of a murderer but appreciated his strength and benevolence nonetheless.
As the years passed, the townsfolk raised René like their own, letting him flourish along with the prosperity of Toulouse. They loved him even on days when the sky was gray, even when he tripped along his path and failed to carry out his duties, and even when he grew ugly as a blue beard covered his face.
The townsfolk called it part of the misfortune that stole his family. René knew it was punishment for his sins.
Despite that, they praised him for the riches his great fortune bestowed upon the town and gifted him a maiden when he was fully grown with broad shoulders, a tall frame, and a blue beard.
She was as handsome as he was hideous, but his wealth bridged every disparity. They lived lavishly together, and though they were not merry all the time, for once, René thought he could finally put behind the shadows of the past and settle.
If only he had noticed the signs sooner.
* * *
His wife was, no doubt, a whore.
The way she smiled at other men, the late nights spent dancing at parties, the total disregard for the needs of her husband. Everything about her was reminiscent of his mother, unsightly for a woman. A lesser man would not notice. René was a lesser man, and he hated himself for it.
It was a quiet night, the stars ablaze in the sky, beaming through the glass windows. He had left Toulouse after telling his wife he was obligated to visit Montauban in the north for business, but instead of the promised six weeks, he returned home after four.
Darkness greeted him like an old friend, swallowing him as he ascended the steps to his chambers. He did not know what to expect, but when he saw candlelight dancing beneath the doorsill and across the ground like wild flames, the beginnings of those melodies he had banished long ago began to sound once more.
Slowly, he opened the door and peeked inside the room, only to find two people sharing a bed: his wife and another man. Same bed. Same room. Same house. But different people. How far would his wretched fate test him?
Those melodies buzzed like provoked bees bouncing in his head as he inhaled a shaky breath, his eyes twitching. Louder and louder, they hummed until all he could do was retrieve a knife from the kitchen and barge into the room to exact punishment.
That night, he murdered the whore and the animal who dared to make a cuckold of him and hid their dead bodies in a secret room. The following day, he told the townsfolk that his wife had disappeared. Rumors spread, but nothing quite matched the truth. They blamed his wife’s disappearance on the curse that took his family and gave him a blue beard.
René did not correct them or say anything about the matter since there was no need to clear his name. He was innocent in the eyes of the people, and his wealth was enough to attract new maidens. So after a few years, when the townsfolk seldom talked about his first wife and when he found another woman worthy of his hand, he remarried.
* * *
His second wife was another failed attempt to settle.
She was as rich as he and cared little for parties and frivolities. He had truly loved her, but when he found her cheating him of his money and besmirching his name to defraud good men of their fortunes, he had murdered her in blind anger.
Again, he hid her body and reused the same story, but the townsfolk were not easy to fool twice. When the whispers grew into insurmountable heights and the questioning refused to stop, René departed to another town in the west, where he lived humbly.
Soon, however, the people revealed his identity as René Devereaux de Toulouse, and when word of his riches spread across the town and caused a stir, another maiden stole his heart.
His third wife was more refined than her predecessors. She brought along with her an air of sophistication and grace afforded only to those born of high status, far from the despicable image of René’s mother tormenting his every moment. She was the perfect wife, and René could imagine spending time with her until his dying days.
What forced him to kill her was entirely his fault.
He took her to his estate in Toulouse during the spring months, showed her the blossoming roses, and gazed at the twinkling stars. Together, they strolled through the thriving streets during the day, chatted by the warm hearth at night. It was a blissful visit to a place sullied with morbid memories.
All was well until, one day, in his library, René heard a harrowing scream echoing from somewhere in the house. Startled, he rushed towards the sound, fearing the worst, but even his imagination could not prepare him for what he found.
His wife was standing tense before an open door, her hands covering her mouth. Her back was to him, her eyes focused on what lay within the room. Horror seized René’s heart as he recognized that door and smelled the putrid stench of rotting flesh. Beyond the threshold lay three bodies bloated and green and very, very dead.
“I can explain,” René said, barely above a whisper, hearing the telltale beginning of the recurring melodies.
Shaking her head, his wife stumbled backward—one step, then another. Fear shrouded her face. Whatever they shared, whatever love they had, was gone. Shoving René aside, she darted for the nearest exit, and without further ado, he chased her on pure instinct alone.
They tumbled over each other out the front door, René on top, his hands already around his wife’s throat. She struggled under him, kicking and punching and scratching and screaming, but René did not relent. The melodies reached a forte, a peak where the past and present merged, combining mirror images, the once-victim now the aggressor.
René cried an animalistic sound as he tightened his hold, a desperate attempt to end their suffering. When her chest finally stopped its labored rise and fall, when the melodies finally dissipated, he let go and rolled onto his back. Panting, he stared at the stars slowly surfacing from behind the dark clouds, tears streaming down his cheeks.
* * *
He did not remarry for a long while. Whether from melancholy or fear, he did not know.
He traveled from town to town, not staying long enough to get well-acquainted with the townsfolk, and always returned to Toulouse during the spring months. It was a lonely life—returning home to the haunting melodies in his head, eating alone at his long table, having no one to talk to throughout the restless nights. But he still attended the occasional parties and festivities of the wealthy.
There, he met her, a daughter of a fine lady who laughed and gossiped with her sister from afar. René stared at her as she turned around and locked eyes with him. All at once, the melodies quieted.
He flinched, wondering if she saw right through him, saw the blood staining his soul. But there were no squinted eyes or pursed lips. She just smiled at him. He smiled back. And for some reason, in the hymns whispering through his bones, in his numbed soul thrumming in his heart of hearts, he knew she would be his last.
Gina Kotinek is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPOT Lit. She is interested in social issues and enjoys implementing them into her writing in hopes that her message will be heard.
About Short Story
“A Study In Blue” is a fractured fairy tale based on the story “Bluebeard” by Charles Perrault.