The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean.
-Bluebeard, Charles Perrault
Other sophomores doodled in the margins of their cultural literacy handouts while our English teacher told us the story of Bluebeard. I leaned forward in my seat and let her voice wash over me. This violence was better than the memory of my own.
Bluebeard was a rich man with a big castle and a basement full of murdered wives. His wealth kept a steady supply of brides incoming—they overlooked the other dead women and his ugly blue beard.
My boyfriend S. raped me on a humid summer afternoon.
He yelled, What’s the point of even having a girlfriend if she doesn’t let me fuck her? I was freshly fifteen and terrified of having sex, always changing the subject when he brought it up. His pit stains, dark and wet, grossed me out.
His room looked the same as always–model planes dangling from the ceiling, books stacked on the desk, workout clothes strewn from corner to corner–but something in him had come unleashed.
He ranted, What’s the point / Why else would we / Don’t you want / I’m not asking /
A strange intuition caused me to launch from his bed and try to leave. I think the suddenness of my movement made S. grab a soccer trophy and knock me unconscious. But I can’t be sure. Maybe he’d woken up that morning and thought, Today, I will bash Megan over the head and rape her. Maybe he panicked after I crumpled to the floor. Maybe he smiled and started to undress me right away.
I woke up naked on the floor. Pounding headache. Sweaty skin. Aching vagina. Bloody labia. I heard S. pacing downstairs. I glanced out the window and felt fear like nothing else. It was a short walk from here to the banks of the Ohio River, a place in Pittsburgh where bodies are routinely unearthed. I shoved my hand over my mouth, chest heaving.
He could be waiting, I thought. He could be getting a knife. He could put me in the water. Fuck, okay, fuck, okay. Where’s my underwear–there’s my dress, my flip-flops–how did he break one of my fucking flip-flops? Fuck it all. Leave the underwear.
I crept downstairs and tried to slow the thrum of my heart so I could hear S.’s movements, broken shoe clutched to my chest. He stood by the door, fiddling with his phone.
You should probably head out, he said.
I walked through the front door unable to feel my legs. I took a step forward onto the front porch. I waited for his arm to circle around my neck, for him to drag me inside, strangle me, threaten me, kill me, beg my silence, my forgiveness, something. Anything. I took another step forward, then another until I clutched the fence enclosing his yard. When I turned to look back, S.’s silhouette had already vanished from its place at the front door.
On the trek home, I did not feel in my body. I watched children draw with sidewalk chalk, heard the hiss of sprinklers. I saw police cars cruise past. Some part of me was still stuck at S.’s.
At home, I climbed the stairs lined with pictures of me as a little girl, her happy smiling face in the JCPenney’s photo studio. She could not possibly be me: those fake sunflowers, that velvet dress—no.
I got into the shower, and blood rolled down my legs and into the drain. My blood, but it felt like someone else’s.
Victim, I mouthed. I am a victim. Saying the words aloud was impossible. Hot water beat against my skull. I was dizzy and nauseous, skin pruney, but I couldn’t leave the shower until the bleeding stopped. Was I lucky to only gush from my vagina rather than my skull? I did not feel very lucky.
In Charles Perrault’s 1697 original version, Bluebeard handed his newest wife a key and forbade her from entering the chamber it unlocked. He promised to punish her harshly if she disobeyed. Curiosity won, though, and she opened the room to find the dead bodies of every woman who came before her. Blood now stained the key in her hand, blood that would not budge no matter how hard she scrubbed. Bluebeard returned and knew his wife had disobeyed him. He decided to behead her.
“Since you are so mighty fond of the closet, you shall be sure to take your place among the ladies you saw there,” he said.
Her brothers rescued her. Moments before Bluebeard could add another dead wife to his collection.
I had no brothers, but I had best friends—five girls, inseparable from fifth grade. My favorite was Layla. She was beautiful, red-haired and green-eyed, her skin soft and freckled. Our entire lives, she had her shit together—never surprised by a test, always prepared with snacks, full of practical knowledge like If you put an egg in water and it sinks, the egg is still good. Her house and its sprawling backyard made it the best for parties. Her cooking skills meant her kitchen was always full of people sniffing around the stove.
Sipping sweet tea on Layla’s back porch, I looked through sliding glass doors into a thicket of pine trees.
I said, S. made me do stuff I didn’t want to do. I still couldn’t make myself say rape and victim out loud.
Layla looked down at her hand of cards. She did not look at me.
I knew she liked S., that all of my friends did. S. was a senior, a varsity soccer player, handsome, with big plans to study engineering at our city’s college. We were sophomores, mostly JV swim team kids and musical theater nerds. When S. started dating me, started attending our parties, saying hello to my friends in the hallways, it was a little like dating a celebrity.
Layla scraped her hair back into a ponytail. I watched the delicate movement of her throat as she swallowed sweet tea and didn’t speak.
I told five girls about my rape. The next day at school, laughing boys passed me, shaking their heads, scanning my body up and down. Girls pressed close to one another in the hallways, eyes glued to me, whispering behind cupped hands. Nearly two dozen people knew.
Everyone ignored me at lunch. I chewed my tasteless sandwich and dumped S. over text. I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? He’ll kill me, or he won’t.
I felt outside of my body, staring at my phone, thinking my hands were someone else’s hands.
I skipped eighth period to lie down on the computer lab floor, my body awash in the light of blue screensavers. A friend who spotted me came in, snorted, and slapped my shoulder.
Good luck with your damage control, she said.
I thought about Bluebeard’s dead wives in their cool, dark tomb. Lucky bitches.
Many writers have retold the story in the three centuries since Bluebeard’s first appearance. Fitcher’s Bird is the Brothers Grimm version. This Bluebeard was a sorcerer who struggled to decide which of three sisters should be his bride. He spent time with the oldest first and gave her the forbidden key along with a single white egg.
Curiosity won—it often does. The oldest sister entered the chamber to find a basin of blood and body parts of his past women. Startled, she dropped the egg. It became eternally bloodstained, informing Bluebeard of her trespass.
He murdered her and moved on to the second sister. The pattern repeats. The last sister forgot to carry the egg with her. When she discovered the dismembered bodies of her sisters, she Frankensteined them back together and hid what she did from Bluebeard.
He asked for her hand in marriage, satisfied with her apparent ability to mind her own business. She pretended to accept but dressed in honey and feathers rather than a wedding gown. Guests called her Fitcher’s Bird. The disguise fooled Bluebeard. He went down the hall to meet his would-be bride. Meanwhile, outside, she and her sisters barred the doors and burned down the castle.
I read that one late at night when I couldn’t sleep, phone an inch from my face. I wished that The Brothers Grimm would’ve gone into more detail about the fire, about the searing of flesh, how it feels when lungs fill up with smoke.
In the weeks after our break-up, I fantasized about suicide the way my friends fantasized about school dances. Each of my methods depended on the day’s cruelty. I had fun with my deathly visions—boys at lunch called me that big bitch, disbelieved me because, who’s desperate to fuck a fat girl? Fantasy Megan hung herself in the bedroom closet, too-small clothes hanging on either side of her corpse.
At Homecoming, friends’ parents gathered in tight little groups taking photos, talking shit about that little liar while I stood dateless. Fantasy Megan stabbed herself in the middle of the dance floor, blood dripping down the bodice of her gold dress.
S.’s fingertips brushed the top of my head when he got off the bus, back into the house where he raped me. Fantasy Megan followed him off and walked straight into the Ohio River, pockets full of stones.
I wanted people to believe me. The truth of what S. did rose through my body in every conversation, even when I knew people hated hearing it.
Driving to Chipotle, I told a boy I’d known since preschool. He pinched his nose and curved his body away from mine.
Maybe, if you’d told me sooner, I could have believed you, he said.
I wished that a semi-truck would plow through the intersection and explode us into confetti.
Angela Carter’s short story “The Bloody Chamber” was not her attempt to retell Bluebeard, she says, but to “extract the latent content” from it. In her version, the final wife is a teenage girl. Bluebeard gave her a ruby choker and ordered her to never take it off. She described losing her virginity as being “impaled.” Bluebeard hoarded violent pornography in his library and took great glee in making his bride uncomfortable: “Have the nasty pictures scared Baby?” After he left for a business trip, the girl entered the bloody chamber and found the bodies. She dropped the key in a pool of blood. Bluebeard saw the stain and pressed the key into her forehead before attempting to kill her. The girl’s mother saved her this time, but the red mark stayed on her forehead forever.
I read “The Bloody Chamber” in the bathtub, wrapped a hand around my throat when the final wife saw “the blue imprint of his strangler’s fingers.” I squeezed until my vision went fuzzy.
I cornered my lane partner after swim practice, the girl who would run alongside the pool at meets to cheer me on. Her screams were so loud that I heard them underwater.
Seems like a he said/she said thing, so I don’t really wanna get involved. Sorry, she said. She was so desperate to get away from me that she left the pool house with her goggles and swim cap still on.
Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Blue-Bearded Lover” featured a final wife who knew that her husband was a murderer and didn’t give a fuck. She stayed in her lane and had lots of babies with Bluebeard.
I couldn't finish that one.
A fellow literary magazine editor who once raved over the force and brutality of my poetry, its violence, and honesty, could not look at me when I told her about the incident that inspired it.
That just seems really out of character for S., she mumbled.
When I was alone, there were two activities on the menu. One: get the old sewing kit, which I’d hidden between my box spring and mattress, wriggle out the largest needle, and slice up my skin.
Two: masturbate to violent porn. Sometimes both at once. Then, shoving my bloody sheets into the washing machine. Afterward, I would feel out of my body again. Those wounds could not be my work. It could not be me who got all shivery at the sound of girls gagging.
My friends kept inviting S. to parties. He came to Friday tailgates and Eat-n-Park pancake brunches, and Layla’s birthday bonfire. He stood close to the flames, yellow light flickering across his face, and talked about how ready he was to finish out high school.
I imagined S. at frat parties, hustling wasted girls into a bedroom, locking the door behind him.
I walked alone into Layla’s kitchen, my hands shaking, and started opening drawers at random. Looking for, I don’t know what. Layla followed me in.
What’s wrong? she asked gently.
I couldn’t remember the last time someone was gentle with me. I’m so tired of seeing him, I moaned, and I felt in my body, for once, felt the tears and snot trickling down my face, felt my hip, cut to shreds, sting as I collapsed against the counter’s edge, felt fat and ugly and half-alive. Through the window, I saw the far-off bodies of my friends gathered around S.
Layla shushed me, rubbed my back, and said Let me make you something.
I slid to the floor and watched as she sandwiched slices of cheddar between buttered bread and slapped the grilled cheese into a cast-iron skillet.
I ate my crusts while she grabbed a lock of my hair and clucked her tongue.
Look at this, she said.
I stopped taking care of myself, hardly showering or brushing my teeth. Hygiene was meaningless when you woke up every day wanting to die.
Sleep over tonight and let me brush it out, Layla said.
She helped me upstairs to her bed, where I slid under the heavy purple comforter. The party would be over soon; S. would leave soon.
That night, I told Layla everything, no vagueness to it—S knocked me out with a soccer trophy. He raped me. I woke up naked and bloody. I thought he was going to kill me. Sometimes I wish he had. I just want people to believe me.
She touched my hair so softly. She smelled like fire and sweet apples. She big-spooned me to sleep, her warm arm over my stomach, our fingers intertwined.
Three weeks later, Layla started dating S.
Maybe S. hand-picked me to assault because I was a girl who wouldn’t be believed. Maybe he raped me on a whim. Maybe Layla was already flirting with S. that night she cared for me. Maybe she was trying to see the bodies of his past wives to decide if marrying him was worth it. Maybe she resisted curiosity, never opened the door, never thought something insidious was behind it. Maybe her egg remained unbloodied.
I don’t know if S. hurt Layla too.
I don’t know if there were girls before me.
I don’t know if there were girls after Layla.
It is exhausting to think about all the parts of this story that will never be mine. My friend group became S.’s entirely. I left group chats, switched seats in classes, and started eating lunch alone in the library. There, hard shelves of encyclopedias digging into my back, I invented new versions of the story.
You should probably head out, S. says, his voice blank. Fantasy Megan calls the police when she is a safe distance from her rapist’s house. The officer provides tissues and support whilst taking Megan’s statement. He believes her. S. is arrested. The trial is quick and quiet. Megan’s friends come to the courthouse and cheer when the guilty verdict is announced. Layla wipes tears from Megan’s eyes, cups her cheek. Everyone says Megan is a survivor.
Fantasy Megan ducks the soccer trophy and starts screaming for help. S. panics, thinking that his nosy neighbor might hear, and decides to shut up his girlfriend. He swings the soccer trophy into her skull so hard that it sounds like a baseball bat thwacking through a watermelon. Megan collapses, face to the floor. She doesn’t move ever again. S. waits a few hours, convinced she might wake up, but the blood and gray brain matter weeping from the wound does not support this theory. He hefts her body up, drags it down the stairs, starts toward the Ohio River. A police cruiser spots him. #JusticeForMegan trends on Twitter. At the funeral, everyone said she was really pretty and full of potential. Those are the lies dead girls get as consolation for being dead.
Fantasy Megan ignores the instinct to run. She is S.’s girlfriend, after all, and what is the point of having a girlfriend if you can’t even fuck her. She lays back on the bed. S. impales her. She keeps her eyes fixed on the door the entire time. He kisses Megan’s forehead after, and she feels like the imprint will never wash off.
Fantasy Megan drops to the floor, just avoiding the soccer trophy. She can see, beneath S.’s bed, a shiny metal baseball bat. When S. grabs her legs, tries to yank her flailing body to him, she swings. The bat connecting with his skull sounds like a symphony. Megan beats that motherfucker’s face in. I should probably head out, she says, voice blank, wiping blood from her face. She tosses the bat into the Ohio River on the way home. Megan knows she is a survivor even if everyone else will call her by a different name.