The Widows Severe (I)
Lon T. Ryden


I heard voices very clearly. They were hushed, quiet voices; whispered words, soft
and sibilant in the mouths of people wary of eavesdroppers like myself.

"Do you think he suspects?" I heard one voice ask. Such a nice voice it was. It
was like leaves carried on an autumn breeze, the soft lappings of a gentle lake. It was a
soothing voice, a familiar voice: my wife's voice.

"No child. He trusts you completely. He has no reason to be suspicious of your
innocence or devotion. His soul is naked before you, vulnerable and without guard."
This voice was not so pleasant. It was like a chorus of snakes hissing in a cave. Quite
suddenly, I had chills. My flesh stood, stiff and pebbled.

They were talking about me. I knew that. Knew in that positive no-need-for-
verification way that I knew my own name and phone number.

I wanted to get closer to the whispering conspirators, but it was completely lightless
where I was. There was nothing by which to gauge my movements or progress. Out
of that pitch blackness, there suddenly spoke another voice.

This speaker had a distinctly shattered tone, as though the words were being forged
in a broken larynx and forced up through a throat full of glass splinters. I had the
impression that speaking was a difficult thing for this person to do -- an activity
associated with pain. The three words that were finally coughed out came scratching at
my ears like thorns and prickers scratching at my arms.

"Quiet. Someone's. Coming."

My heart stopped beating.

And then there was dim light before my eyes. Dim light falling on a landscape of
ghost-white sheets and pillow cases, and where my wife's head should've lay, on the
pillow next to me, there was only a shadow-filled indentation. An irrational panic
seized me. I sat bolt upright and fumbled for the lamp on the night stand.

Click, and there was light, but the bedroom was empty excepting the furniture, and
I felt my fear growing. I called out, "Cassie?" but my throat was dry and it was really
no more than a hoarse gasp.

I sprang out of bed then, paying no mind to my nakedness. In an instant I was at
the door of the bedroom, flinging it wide and entering the hall beyond, where I nearly
trampled my wide-eyed wife.

Her face was a portrait of concern.

"Honey, is there something wrong?"

I wrapped her up in my arms and she returned the embrace. I held her in silence
for a moment, relishing the feeling of her hair on my cheek and neck, and the warm
tickle of her breath on my shoulder, and the smoothness of her silk pajamas.

"What is it? What's wrong?" she asked again. Was it my imagination, or did she
seem stiff and distanced?

"I had a bad dream," I said. I felt childish; a little boy running for the protection of
his mother's skirts. "I woke up and you weren't there..." I was grabbing at straws,
trying to justify my behavior. "I got worried." My words were small.

She was tense. Her hug was still warm and tight, but suddenly she felt like wood.
"Tell me about it," she said, and there was something masquerading as sympathy there,
behind those words -- something I'd never heard in her voice before.

Do you think he suspects?

Goosebumps began to rise from the flesh of my back. She stroked over them with
her hands.

"You're cold," she said. "Let's get back into bed and warm you up." And she was
leading me by the hand back into the bedroom. Now her voice was back to being the
sweet and soothing sound I had come to love. She climbed into bed. "Sometimes it
helps to talk about it," she said, adjusting her pillow. "Sometimes it helps to get dreams
out in the open and let the light shine on them. Tell me about it." She patted the bed
beside her, beckoning me come.

There were words right on the edge of my lips, just a flip of the tongue from coming
out...

Do you think he suspects?

...but something stopped me from saying them. I swallowed them instead. I had to
swallow hard. I could tell they would not sit well in my stomach.

"I," I said, and then repeated the syllable once more for good measure, "I... It's
nothing. It's stupid. Where were you though?"

"I was having trouble sleeping. I went to make myself a cup of tea. That helps me
sometimes. The warmness, I think, is what does it." She had me fixed in a very serious
look. "Are you going to be okay? Would you like me to make you some tea too?"

I nodded. "I'll be fine. No tea, thanks."

She surveyed me for a few seconds more, with her serious eyes, then reached to
the night stand and turned out the light. In the dark, she rolled up to me and held me
and let my shoulder pillow her head. It took just a couple of minutes for her to fall
asleep. I could tell by the regular rhythm of her breathing. The tea certainly seemed to
have helped her.

I could not sleep. My mind was alert and nervous -- filled to bursting with
senseless thinkings.

I thought about my dreams.

Now I know that all people dream. All people, as they slumber, drift through
different phases of sleep, and experience rapid eye movement and the like. And during
that time, I know the subconscious mind plays all manner of imaginings and
hallucinations and memories. People, places and things, all come, floating and vague,
like vapors off the simmering cauldron of our restless mind. I know that all people
dream. Those that claim they do not dream, dream just the same; they just don't
remember. Their dreams fade in the light of day, become pale in contrast to the
concerns of the real and waking world, and are forgotten.

I use to forget my dreams.

But things changed when I married Cassie. Since being married I have
remembered many dreams, most of them nightmares.

Laying in the dark, staring at the ceiling, my stomach a knot, I thought of the day I'd
married Cassie. I thought of her soft, warm body in my arms. And then with startling
clarity a thought came to me: He suspects now.
***
On my wedding day, at the reception, surrounded on all sides by friends and
relatives and loved ones, I met a man that I had never met before, and have never seen
since.

Cassie was dancing with my little brother, Jason, who had just turned twelve, the
baby of my family. Jason was blushing furiously, embarrassed both by close contact
with a girl and from being the center of everyone's attention. Everyone had either an
"oh," or a laugh on their lips. It was a real Kodak moment. I remember that moment
as one of the truly golden ones of my life.

And then there was a tap on my arm and I turned around and found myself facing a
grizzled old man in a threadbare gray suit, the sleeves and legs of which fell short on his
thin, weathered limbs. The moment of my encounter with him will always be with me
also; as one of the most disturbing of my life.

The old man said, "She's a real beauty, she is." He was talking about Cassie. He
pointed in her direction with a finger bent by swollen knuckles.

"Yes," I said, "she is." I was full of pride.

"Looks a lot like her grandmother, that one. Got her grandma's eyes, that's for
sure. That blue like cold water."

"Ah," I said. I had been wondering how the man had come to be there. "You must
be one of my new in-laws then." I shook his hand. " I am glad to meet you. Cassie
told me most of her family had died."

"Oh no," he said, laughing. "I'm not a Severe. Oh, for sakes, no."

"Well, a close friend of the family then. No matter, I am still pleased to meet you."
I shook his hand again.

"Well now, I wouldn't exactly call myself a friend either. An acquaintance maybe.
But my ties with the Severes are long broken now. My brother... he married
Cassandra's grandmother, Marrianna." There was something dreadful and menacing
about the way he said that. "He was only married for three weeks, though. They were
living in an apartment then, the two of them. My brother was building their future home.
Doing most of the work himself. I helped out a little, here and there, but only a little: I
never had talent with my hands."

I wanted to find a polite way to excuse myself, but I couldn't. I said, "What
happened?" knowing I would regret asking, but knowing I would feel worse if I turned
this wretched man away without first hearing his story.

"He fell off the roof. Landed on a hammer. Shattered his back. The doctor said
death was probably instantaneous. He never knew what hit him. Hell of a way to go,
eh?"

"That's terrible," I said, using words of sympathy without feeling it.

"Yes. Oh, for sakes, my family, we were so grieved by the tragedy. Especially
when we later learned that Marrianna was pregnant with his child. Nothing tears at the
heart like a young widow with a baby, you know? She was a courageous mother, but
it was still kind of pitiful. Kind of sad. A kid needs a father, you know what I'm
saying?" The old man was scratching at his chin, reflecting on his memories. His fingers
made a withered, sandy noise against his dry, stubbly skin. I thought he was probably
done with his story, so I backed a step away, hoping for a quick, clean separation, but
I didn't quite put enough distance between us. "Mary never would accept any help
from any of my family. She had a lot of pride. She was a strong woman, I'll give her
that much. My mother, and her sister, my aunt that is, offered to help her out on many
occasions, but Mary wouldn't have any of it. She was an outsider, a loner; everything
she did, she did on her own. We never really knew much about her after Daryl died.
We kept tabs on her, but that was about all really."

"I'm sorry," I said. I didn't know what else to say. I was getting to feel very
uncomfortable. I wanted the song Cassie and Jason were dancing to to end so I would
have a reason to leave and rejoin her.

"Oh, for sakes, no need for apologies," the old man waved his hands dismissively.
"That's all ancient history now. No matter, any of that. Even by herself, Mary did just
fine raising Elizabeth. I saw them in town every now and again, the two of them
walking, hand in hand, pretty as a picture, they were. I saw Elizabeth married too, you
know."

"No, I didn't know that."

"She made a young widow too. She and her husband were only married a year
and four months. He never saw the birth of his daughter either."

Finally the song was ending. I said, "Looks like one of our songs is coming up," by
way of excusing myself and made to leave. I thought because of the increasing distance
between us that I probably mis-heard the old man's parting words:

"And way back, Cassandra's great grandmother, she was a widow too."

So I cast one more glance back at him. I said, "I beg your pardon?"

"The Three Widows Severe, boy. It's their way. Don't you be in any hurry to
make number four."

And like I said, I never saw him again.
***
The day Cassie and I moved into our house is another one high up on my list of
fond memories. It seemed to me to be the finishing touch on the project of my success.
Thirty-four years old, I had a career as a future partner in my law firm, I was making a
six digit salary, I had my health, I had the singular most beautiful woman in Western
Civilization for a wife, I had a Mercedes, and now, I had my house. The only things
missing were children and a good dog. The children would come (children are a natural
by-product of being married to the most beautiful woman in Western Civilization). The
dog was another situation all together. Cassie preferred cats; cats and birds and
rodents. Rats, mind you, were fine, but dogs were out of the question. Still, even
minus the dog I dreamed of someday having, I was happy.

I remember unlocking that big white door with the brass knob and door-knocker
and the three diagonal beveled-glass windows, and stepping into the room beyond, and
it was like the beginning of a whole new life. Here was a perfect space, empty and
waiting. Waiting for me to fill it with my things, my family, and good memories. I took
a couple of minutes there at the threshold, mostly excited, slightly overwhelmed, to
explore the magical feeling of the moment. The sense of personal history in the making
was so powerful, I thought I might cry.

Cassandra was right behind me. She had to crane her neck to get a look over my
shoulder. "What's the matter?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said. "There's nothing wrong at all. It's perfect. It's beautiful."

"Are we going to go inside sometime?"

"Of course," I said. I made to step aside but thought better of it. Instead, I swept
my Cassie up in my arms and carried her into our new home. She giggled like a little
girl.

We walked through the house together, hand in hand, marveling at what we had.
Cassandra laid plans out, as to what would go where, in perfect detail as we toured
each room, and then upon completing our circuit of all the rooms and returning to the
living room, I laid her out on the floor and made love to her in the light of a golden
sunset that came shining in through the picture windows that lined the west wall. I had
found my heaven on earth.

But as vividly as I can recall that first day in this house... I can remember that first
night even better. It was the first time I had a nightmare about the watchers. At first, I
was in a stormy sea, the color of steel. The swells were of truly colossal nature, fifty to
sixty feet high. I rode them helplessly, just barely able to keep my head up. My
endurance was flagging. The water was cold. The great liquid roller coaster was
relentless. And there was no sign of land anywhere.

I remember having thought that I was surely doomed to die, but that in itself was
not a scary thing to contemplate; in fact, I found it oddly comforting. Perhaps the
comfort was in knowing that my suffering would shortly be coming to an end.

I slipped below the surface, once, then a second time, coughed on briny water, and
then saw, in the distance, a ship. It was moving towards me.

At first I thought the craft appeared black because of the distance between me and
it, but as it got closer I saw that it was indeed, entirely black, and the intensity of its
blackness prevented me from making out any details on the hull or deck of it.

And it got closer and closer.

And the cold of the water was nothing compared to the cold of the dread that I felt
rising in my heart as that ship came for me.

Nets were lowered from the ship, and hitting the water they spread their rope
tentacles wide. I was snared in the mesh like a tuna, and pulled from the water.

...and set down in my bedroom; my new bedroom in my new house, and Cassie
was there. She was shocked to see me in the state I was in, soaked and chilled to the
bone, my clothes dripping. Her lips moved but no sound came out. She came to me
and began to undress me. I saw that outside the bedroom window it was night, and
floating in that night were three pairs of eyes. Icy blue eyes, like Cassie's. They
watched with great interest as Cassie first stripped me to my underwear and then
wrapped me in blankets. All the while she seemed to speak, but I heard nothing. She
caressed my forehead.

I was warming rather quickly; feeling was returning to my fingers and my toes, and
they burned painful hot. But even as some parts of my body were just beginning to
thaw, others were warm already, as though heated by fire. I wanted very desperately
to make love to Cassie just then, and I could see in her eyes that she knew this. She
reached inside the blankets with one hand and I felt that hand slip under the waist-band
of my shorts. She fondled me. I stiffened. A soft, pleasured gasp slipped from my
lips.

Then, quite suddenly, all the pleasure was pain and I felt warm wetness, alarming in
quantity, oozing between my legs, and I knew it was blood. My toes curled, and my
knees locked and my thighs were seized by hot, clenching cramps.

Cassie was looking me straight in the face. In her eyes I saw raw, unsorted
emotions -- confusion. Her mouth was a tiny, thoughtful frown. Somehow, through the
pain, I felt her hand leaving me. When she pulled that hand out of the blankets it was
balled into a fist and dripping red.

I tried to scream but failed.

Cassie held one finger from her clean hand up to her lips as though to shush me.
While doing this I saw her slowly open her crimson fist. And it was filled with babies.

Hundreds of tiny babies, each one probably no bigger than a ball bearing, yet I
could see them all in startling, detailed clarity. Some laughed, some cried, others did
nothing but stare. Some of them slept. Others appeared dead.

This time I did scream. I screamed until my throat was stripped and I could
manage nothing more than hoarse wheezing.

Cassie repeated her shushing gesture.

How ridiculous that she should castrate me and then expect me to be quietly
cooperative as I lay there bleeding to death.

She leaned towards me then, and pressed her lips onto mine. But it was a kiss full
of malice. She began to inhale and I realized the air was being sucked from me. I had
a brief vision of my lungs collapsing like tubes of toothpaste whose contents were being
squeezed out. Darkness was coming to greet my wide and staring eyes. The last thing
I saw was the window behind which sat the three watchers. The last thing I heard was
laughter.

Before waking that is.

It's probably the program I use to put these pages together, but it refuses to handle big chunks of text.
And "The Widows Severe" is another such chunk of text. So, much like "Wrath", I'm going to break it
into parts and provide a little navigation bar at the top of the page.