“Late Love,” by Joyce Carol Oates

Wandering in the cellar of the unfamiliar house, unable for some frantic minutes to find the stairway leading up, the wife had begun to have difficulty breathing.

A new marriage is a new start. A new calendar.

What is it? A curious tingling sensation on the wife’s nose and cheeks, a similar sensation in the soft skin of her armpits, on her breasts, her stomach, the insides of her thighs. Itching, stinging, not entirely unpleasurable. She tries weakly to brush the sensation away, tries to touch her nose, where it is strongest, but cannot for her arms are paralyzed.

Help! Help me!

She is crying, wailing—yet in silence. Her mouth moves grotesquely, opening wide, a gaping O, her jaws quivering, convulsing. She tries to move her arms, her hands—a terrible numbness has suffused her limbs, rendering them useless. In desperation she manages to turn her head to one side, then to the other—thrashing her head from side to side to dislodge something from her face, her nose, which is stinging harder now, hurting.

Waking suddenly, out of a deep sleep. Her exhausted brain begins to clatter like a runaway machine.

“Help me! Please!”

There is something on her nose and cheeks, nestled tight in her armpits.

With all her strength, the wife manages to stumble from the bed and into the bathroom, fumbles to switch on the light, sees to her horror, in the mirror above the sink, something stuck to her nose, slimy-dark, fattish, rubbery, alive—is it a leech?

A half-dozen leeches on her face, the underside of her jaw, her throat . . .

She screams, tearing with her nails at the leech affixed to her nose until she rips it away, bloated with her blood. The thing falls dazed and squirming to the floor. Her nose is red where the leech’s tiny teeth sank into her skin; her cheeks are dotted with bloody droplets. She is frantic with horror and disbelief, clawing at her armpits, at her breasts. More leeches fall to the floor, where blood leaks from them, her blood.

The wife has never seen a leech. Not a living leech. Only photographs of leeches. In medical-history books, in her husband’s library. Yet she recognizes these bloodsucking slugs. She is aghast, hyperventilating, can’t catch her breath. In terror of losing consciousness. Her bones turned to liquid, she collapses to the floor, where dozens of leeches writhe, waiting to attack her anew.

In that instant, the light in the room brightens.

Near-blinding as the husband calls her name. Shakes her shoulders. Speaking urgently to her, “Wake up, darling! Wake up!” And she is free; she is awake. Not in the bathroom but in bed. In the fourposter bed where (evidently) she has been sleeping. Rescued by the husband from a terrible nightmare.

The husband, his face creased in concern, is asking the wife what she has been dreaming. What has frightened her so? But the wife is unable to speak—she is still in the grip of the nightmare, her throat closed tight.

No intention of telling the husband about leeches, no intention of speaking the obscene word aloud—leech.

Gradually, in the husband’s arms, the exhausted wife falls asleep.

Do not abandon me! I have no one but you.

The former wife speaks so faintly that the new wife can barely hear.

Alone in the house in the dimly lit cellar, searching for her missing, cherished books but also for the (possible? probable?) place of interment of the former wife.

Hours prowling the cellar. While the husband is away.

So many duct-taped boxes! So many locked suitcases, piled in a corner!

The new wife has to concede that, if the former wife’s remains are hidden somewhere in this vast underground mausoleum, she, the new wife, is not likely to ever locate them: the husband has covered his tracks too cleverly.

The husband’s daylight self is the perfect cover for the husband’s nighttime self. Who but a wife would guess?

It is the new wife’s guess, too, that the husband must have drugged the former wife, so that when he pressed the goose-feather pillow over the woman’s face she was too shocked and too weak to save herself.

Too weak to save herself, let alone overpower the much stronger husband.

Do not make my mistake. Do not trust in love.

Go to his medicine cabinet, where there are pills dating back years. Choose the strongest barbiturates. Grind these into a fine white powder.

Stir this fine white powder into his food. A highly spiced dish is recommended.

Wait then until he is deeply asleep. Have patience. Do not hurry before daring to position the goose-feather pillow over his face and press down hard.

And once you have pressed down hard do not relent. No mercy! Or he will revive, and he will murder you.

Render helpless the enemy, for self-defense is the primary law of nature.

But the next nights are dreamless nights. So far as the wife can recall.

Then, sleeping guardedly one night, she sees (clearly, through narrowed eyes) the husband approaching the bed in which she, the wife, is sleeping.

It is late in the night. A moonless night. Yet the wife can see how the husband approaches her side of the bed in stealth, with patience and cunning; how he smiles down at her, the (drugged) wife, how he smiles in anticipation of what he is going to do to her, a rapacious smile the wife has never seen before; and when the husband determines that the (drugged) wife will not awaken he takes out of a container the first of the slimy black creatures, a wriggling leech about three inches in length, and gently places it on the wife’s nose.

In her benumbed, narcotized state, the wife cannot defend herself against the husband as he carefully positions leeches in her armpits, between her breasts, on her belly, where her skin shivers with the touch of the leech, and in the wiry hairs at the fork in her legs. A lone leech, the last in the container, the husband places in the bend of the wife’s right knee, where the flesh is soft and succulent.

A dozen leeches, all roused to appetite. Piercing the wife’s skin and injecting an anticoagulant into her blood.

In agonized silence the wife cries, No! Help me! Please help me!

“Darling, wake up! You’re having a bad dream.”

Fingers grip the wife’s shoulders hard, give her a rough shake. Her eyelids flutter open.

In the dark that is not total darkness, she is astonished to see a figure leaning over her, in bed beside her. Telling her, as one might tell a frightened child, that she has had a bad dream but she is awake now, she is safe.

Where is she? In a bed? But whose?

Naked inside a nightgown. A thin cotton nightgown, soaked in perspiration, that has hiked up her thighs.

Frantically her hands grope her body—nose, cheeks, jaw, breasts, belly. Only smooth skin.

In this bed in this room she doesn’t recognize. Then she recalls: she is married (again).

One of them reaches for the bedside lamp and turns it on. Each seeing the other’s face haloed suddenly in the darkness. ♦

This is drawn from “Flint Kill Creek: Stories of Mystery and Suspense.”

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