The cold night is pierced by the screech of an owl. The sound goes right through me and I sit bolt upright, the sheets tangled around me and my nightgown bunched in awkward places. My breathing is heavy and my head throbs, pulled violently from the solace of sleep. The sound of the match striking and the soft flame enveloping the wick of the candle is a comfort in the pitch black of my room. The room I’m not quite used to yet. It’s too quiet here in Norfolk and the air is too clear, too clean. Mother makes a point of drinking it in and proclaiming how beneficial it is to our health but I miss the dark, hazy quality the London air would get at night, how I would sneak back inside smelling of smoke. Smelling like Eliza.
I can’t feel her anymore, all the way out here. Her presence eludes me and lately I’ve had to remind myself what she sounded like, the amount of freckles on her face and the exact colour of her eyes. I don’t ever want to forget her, but there are no photographs, and I don’t have any of her things. It’s like she never existed. The grief is redolent of that which I felt almost a year ago, when Eliza disappeared without a word. I scoured the streets of London looking for her but she was just gone. I mourned for her, until she turned up nine months later in the throes of labour right on my doorstep. She explained that she had met a man who promised to take care of her, to lift her out of poverty, but when her stomach started to swell, he ran. She had no one to turn to but me and my brother Thomas. None of us knew it, but the end of her life lay only hours away.
I blow out the match, the smoke rising and dancing throughout the room. I follow its trail to the ceiling, and when I can no longer make out its curling pattern, my eyes return to the corner of my room. It is then when my heart stops.
She’s there. As though she never left, Eliza stands like Eurydice before me, swathed in white and looking like an angel come to deliver my soul to heaven. I cannot form words, my mouth won’t even open. All I can do is stare as she approaches me, her steps slow and soft. As she comes closer, the small light from the candle illuminates her form and I can see her more clearly. A white gossamer veil obscures her face- her features are muted beneath the fabric, though I can make out her smile. Her hair, usually thick and unruly, is tamed into long, smooth waves woven through with white, delicate flowers so fresh I'm surprised no dew remains on the tiny buds. Her dress trails behind her, the soft flowing material cascading down her body and pooling onto the floor. She reaches my bedside and I still haven't said a word. Neither has she. Purely by instinct I reach out and take her hand in mine. The skin is soft and smooth, the complete opposite of the rough, scratched hand I used to grab as we ran through the streets.
She presses her free hand to my face and I can't take it anymore. I need her nearer. To touch her, to prove that she’s real. I gently pull her down onto the bed and escape the covers myself, so that we both sit atop them. I take her other hand in mine. Still, we do not speak, both of us bound to a mysterious vow of silence. It doesn't bother me, I'm used to silence now, but being with Eliza and not hearing her voice is jarring. She was never quiet. I slide one hand from her grip and run my fingers gently along the edge of her veil, pinching the fine fabric. She would never have been able to afford something like this, and even if she had, she never would have bothered with it. I lift the veil up and throw it back so that it falls over her hair instead of her now unobscured face. I hardly recognise her. Her skin is clean and unblemished, the slightest tint of pink in her cheeks. The Eliza before me is so far removed from the one I last saw, face red and twisted in pain, then pale and still. Looking at me now is an Eliza full of life, no matter how different she looks. She smiles and looks down at our interlocked hands, her hair falling in her face. She hated that.
My heart racing, I take a strand of it between my fingers and tuck it behind her ear for her, displacing a few flowers. Her eyes move from our hands to me, filled with joy rather than tears. My own eyes begin to sting and pain unfurls in my throat. I hide my face and fight the tears but they are insistent. I squeeze Eliza’s hand harder. I need to be sure that she’s really here, that she’s real. I can’t lose her again.
My heart clenches with pain most mornings when I wake up and realise she’s gone. The image of the life fading from her eyes will never be scrubbed from my memory. Every day I am forced to relive Eliza’s death, holding her screaming baby in my arms while she bled and bled in front of me, my brother Thomas doing everything within his limited power to save her, to stop the bleeding. It wasn’t enough. I never even got to see the baby after that, or give her a name. Mother snatched her from my arms and marched her down to the foundling hospital still bloodied.
Eliza can see the pain in my eyes and her thumb is quick to brush the tears making their way down my cheeks. She lifts my chin and I look back up at her. My entire body prickles with a sensation I’ve only felt in her presence before, and my tears stop in their tracks. The room grows warmer, the walls shrink. The air is still and quiet. All I can hear are the thuds of my own desperate heart and Eliza's slow breathing.
My hand moves to her jaw, my trembling fingers tracing its sharp line. My eyes become greedy, drinking in every detail of her face. No pore, eyelash or freckle goes unobserved as I try my best to preserve the moment, to keep it etched in my mind. To remember. All I want to do is remember. I can't ever let myself forget her. Not even when age wrinkles my skin and dulls my eyesight. I want my last thought to be of her, of the sound of her voice, the texture of her hair, her penny bun taste. My thumb moves slowly from her jaw to her bottom lip, pink and plump. I look back into her eyes. She doesn’t say anything. Neither do I. She only nods.
My lips are pressed to hers before I know what I’m doing. Her hand moves to my back, mine disappearing in her mass of hair. She still tastes sugar sweet, like the last time, the only time. The time on Hampstead Heath when she kissed me and ran away without a word, and I sat there for hours because I didn't know a girl could do that, could make me feel that. Tears spring from my eyes once more. She must be real. She has to be.
The first kiss does not last long. I pull back, reeling from the surprise. My eyes roll over the rest of her. Desire expands within me like a gnawing and persistent hunger, threatening to tear me apart from the inside if I don't kiss her again. I give into it- the only way to sate it. There is more power, more meaning behind this kiss, both Eliza and I know it. She grasps my nightgown with her fist, pulling me ever closer. My hand moves from her hair, roaming across her body, mapping it through touch, enjoying the feel of the silky fabric but preferring it were her bare skin instead.
Breaking the kiss only momentarily, I gently tip her backwards so that she lies beneath me. Her hair fans about her face, suffused with a glowing blush, her lips reddened. My nightgown has slipped in all the commotion, one shoulder exposed. Eliza pushes herself up on her elbows and presses a kiss to where my neck and shoulder join, and a shudder shoots right through me. I want more. I return the favour, placing my own kiss upon the same spot on her. Her chest rises and falls deeper than ever with wordless sighs, her back slowly arching. I am being driven wild. Acting on an impulse I had many a time but could never carry out, my hand drifts to the hem of her dress. I kiss her again, and while I do so my hand slides up her thigh, the skin achingly soft.
A multitude of things stop me in my tracks. The room has grown colder. Eliza has pulled away, and for the first time, she is making noise. My fingers are slick. Dread kills any desire left in me stone dead and I force myself to pause for just another second, to live out the fantasy a moment more. I open my eyes and am immediately met with my worst nightmare, playing out in front of me again.
We are both covered in blood. The heavy, cloying smell of it fills the room and I gag at the memory and the proximity to it. I look down and Eliza is screaming, her face twisted in agony, pushing me forcefully off her. I bounce backwards on the bed. My hand is wet with claret blood. My stomach contracts at the sight of it and I wipe it frantically on the sheets before realising that they are irrevocably soaked. Thick, dark clots litter the bed, now stained an awful colour. Eliza’s white dress is soaked through, as is my nightgown. She grasps the stained sheets, her fists tight and screams ever louder. I can do nothing but watch. I am frozen in place. It’s happening again. I want to leap from the bed toward Eliza, hold her hand, speak to her, tell her: I love you, I love you, I love you. I wish you never left me, I wish you never met him. I could have taken care of you, you didn't need to leave. But neither my body nor my voice will work.
As I am forced to watch her writhing and screaming, I come to the realisation I had been repressing. None of it was real. Not her veil, her white dress, her soft lips. That wasn't my Eliza. My Eliza had a dirty face, a loud voice and would never wear white. No matter how much I wanted her, she was never there. She is gone for good, and this nightmare playing out in front of me is exactly this, a nightmare. A cruel trick of the mind. Eliza’s screams grow louder, and her blood stays on my hands. I don't think I will ever be rid of it.
Eliza’s screams stop as quickly as they began, and she sits bolt upright. Her face, illuminated in the weakening candlelight, is pale and slick with sweat. Her eyes are huge and like those of a feral animal.
She opens her mouth as if to tell me something.
I wake up screaming.