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As a little girl, I had all sorts of fancies of what married life would be like. I imagined waking up in the arms of my beloved in the brightness of the early morning, and then breakfasting in bed: buttered toast with jam and a glass of milk for me, porridge with cream and a black coffee for him. If I closed my eyes, I could smell this scene unfolding. I could even smell him, my dream lover, and his scent was wonderful indeed. It was the smell of pine trees, earth and rain. I thought of how simple and sweet our life would be in a small country house, perhaps even a cottage, away from the smoke and the noise of the city.
How foolish I was to think that life could be that idyllic.
I got married last July to a man I had known since my early childhood. I was surprised, but not unpleasantly so, when I learned that our family friend and doctor, Mr. Clayton Thorne, had asked for my hand in marriage. I found his amiable nature greatly appealing, and I thought he looked quite youthful for a man fast approaching forty. Our wedding took place on a particularly balmy day, and it had been a small yet charming affair. I didn’t mind that he was almost twice my age, or that I wasn’t his first wife. That honour went to his dear Delilah. They had been childhood sweethearts and had gotten married as soon as they could, but, in a twist of ill fate, she had died on their wedding night.
From the accounts I have heard, she died rather peacefully in her sleep, and the good doctor thought that she was still sleeping when he got out of bed to get them some tea. It was only when he returned that he realised that she was too still, too peaceful, and that something deeper than sleep had overcome her. It pains my heart to think of how devastated he must have been when he realised she was dead. What a cruel joke that he had been a bridegroom longer than he had been a husband. Nobody thought that he would ever marry again, and yet I had become his bride.
I now lie awake, cold as stone, in our marital bed. It is only the twilight hours of the morning, and yet my husband is not beside me, and I do not think he has left me recently, for his side of the bed is cool to the touch. This is not the first time he has left me alone. He has been escaping our bed in the middle of the night for some time now. Lord knows where he goes or what he does. I am too afraid to ask him for an explanation, for the answer might be worse still than my suspicions, and yet today I am compelled to see for myself what my husband is up to at this early hour. I rise out of bed as silently as I can and creep towards the door. I open it ever so slightly and take a peek outside.
It is dark in the hallway, but there is light emanating from the first floor. I skip across the hallway and descend the stairs, my heart pounding so hard that it’s the only thing I hear. That is, until a shrill laugh escapes the drawing room. The sound is so unexpected and unfamiliar that I stop dead in my tracks and grasp onto the bannister as if it’s the only thing tethering me to this earth. I wonder if I am going mad, because the laugh definitely does not belong to my husband. Feminine, it is high and sickly sweet, the voice of a young maiden, not the matronly maids under our employ. I decide to continue my journey down the stairs and make my way towards the drawing room. The door is slightly ajar and amber light floods out from the gap. Holding my breath, I dare to look at what’s inside.
I would’ve screamed if the image before my eyes hadn’t struck me dumb. I feel as if I’ve been submerged in an icy bath. My husband is inside–but he is not alone. There is a ghostly figure in his arms and they are waltzing across the room. I have never seen any pictures of my husband’s first wife, but I sense it in my bones that it is she with whom he is dancing. A pang of jealousy hits me straight in the chest, melding with the fear in my heart, and the resulting feeling is so ugly that I want to purge it from my very core. Despite only being a phantom, she is unarguably lovely. Her skin glows pale like moonlight and her dark hair cascades down her back, swishing as they dance.
I watch transfixed and it strikes me that we share a resemblance, not uncanny, but undoubtedly there. Both of us are raven-haired and pale-skinned beauties, but somehow her deathly state has elevated her looks to an otherworldly level. She twirls and meets my gaze. A smile plays on her lips.
I gasp and take a step back. She has the gall to smile at me when she has been stealing more and more of my husband for herself! I turn and run back to the bedroom. I must be going mad, for there is no other explanation for Delilah’s return. She is dead. She is buried. Death should’ve separated her and my husband for good. He is mine now, not hers. It is not my fault that she died, so why should I have to share him? No! I will not allow such an abhorrent arrangement. My husband is a good man, and he is mine alone. I would sooner see him dead than with her.
I climb back under the covers of the bed and feign sleep. I soon hear footsteps approaching and the door creaks open and then shut. I feel the weight of my husband beside me as he sinks into the mattress. He places his arms around my waist and is soon breathing deeply. I feel his warm breath tickling my neck. It’s a pleasant feeling, and despite my anger at his disloyalty, I pull his arms even tighter around me. How am I to get rid of his phantom bride? Doing battle with ghosts was not part of my education. What I do know is that my husband still keeps a physical piece of Delilah in his study, perfectly preserved in a jar full of formalin amongst the other specimens that he likes to collect. I wonder what would happen if I were to throw her bleached heart straight into the flames of our hearth? I suppose I’ll get my answer tomorrow night. God willing, she won’t return.
Interview with Anna Ojinnaka, Author of “Dancing Delilah”
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
The novel Perfume by Patrick Süskind—I think it can be considered gothic. It’s hard to explain why I love it so much. I find Grenouille to be an interesting protagonist, what with his preternatural sense of smell and dogged determination to create the ultimate perfume no matter the cost. Also, the scenery and scents are described so vividly that it’s like I’m travelling right next to Grenouille on his travels through 18th Century France.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since my tweens. During high school, I used to love writing whatever stories came to mind and posting them online. I’m actually a little envious of how my younger self could just delve into writing a story so easily, with no real consideration of plausibility (or taste, for that matter) to slow down the process.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
“There are no such things as disasters, only fresh opportunities—and opportunities for fresh disasters.”
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
Anna is a full-time lab assistant who enjoys writing dark tales in her spare time. She also likes to paint.