Faults of an Armstrong: Till Death Do Us Part
God did her dirty.
He did not listen. He did not care. He was no God himself, she thought.
No, they were wrong thoughts. Wrong, wrong thoughts. He gave her a shoulder to cry on. Told her to stand after every fall. His eye did not waver in her sight, the very eye that blessed her with the man called Burton. He did not abandon her like the Royal Family abandoned the country.
But if she were honest, could she see herself through another quiet year in the house? Another year of silent envy as she congratulated mothers-to-be, as her friends were on their third or fourth child? Through another semester of adolescent faces spiting her, a mum in her heart growing? She could not brave when her nephew was to turn eight for fear her face would be palpable enough to question. By her younger brother. By Burton. By family and friends.
He gave her this power; he had no right to take it from her. No right to let her carry a blood disease that, by the time the placenta took hold of her blood, it clotted before it could be supplied to her child. Was it so terrible of her to question Him? Doubt Him? Of all the godsend he brought her, this was His answer time and again? No.
“Let’s say we try again,” she said.
Burton paused. He caught a photo album in her hands. “Annaliese…”
The two started a book club five years ago. Every month was a new book, and every night they read a chapter or two to each other. They snug in bed reading Children of Valhalla, a Norse political thriller about children of heroes seeking to right a wrong done to their parents who sought Valhalla in the Viking Era. But for the past few weeks, she flipped through the photo album she curated over the years.
A voice in him nagged the back of his mind. Begged him to speak up and set her straight; this was foolish. But what strength did he have in him to fight? They were meaningless in the end, anyway. He thought if he continued to read to her, she might put it down and fall back into the nightly routine that kept them going after the first miscarriage.
“I know, I know. But—” She caressed a collage of baby pictures of herself, her little brother, her nephew, her cousins. “I can’t help but know I can do something alchemy can’t. I can play God just this once.”
“But we’ve tried. We’ve tried. If He doesn’t want us to conceive, then we must trust His Plan. He won’t stop us from adopting; maybe that’s what He wants from us. There are too many children out there without a good loving home.”
She scoffed. “Please. His Plan? Was it not in His Plan for me to bear you a child? He can’t rid me of a miracle so many have a right to experience.” Not while He ruled childbirth as the ultimate union of love, second to marriage. “It’s been five years… I can’t help but think that maybe He is a false prophet, a God of Apathy.”
He loved her; He loved her not.
“You know He is of no such thing.”
“Then, what is He?”
“True. Benevolent. Virtu—”
“Benevolent?” She could laugh. “What has He given us? What has He given us, truly?”
Her words were almost inconceivable to him, as if they came from another pair of lips. “Is our love not enough? This life?”
She almost laughed. But she respected her husband; he did not walk the thin line that was her faith. “I am grateful for what we have, but—”
“Have we not lived enough for Him? Have we not sacrificed enough for His plan? Have we not—” He mocked her surely.
Did He watch as she kneeled and prayed as a child and laughed? Was her perfect attendance every Sunday at church in vain? She wondered what He thought when she witnessed the birth of her younger brother, and her face lit up. He did mock her, she was sure, for when He guided her hand across the bubble that marked PARENTING as she picked her classes at sixteen.
“I’ve been a good Sister all my life; I’ve never missed a prayer. I’ve spoken nothing but good faith of our Lord and Saviour, His son, to my students. I’ve organized charities in His name and have run small community clubs for troubled people. I’ve been a good priestess in Father Bruhl’s absence. And I’ve been nothing less than a loyal wife. I moved for us to work. I keep the house down for when you leave for months, and you left for two years!”
His brows furrowed. “That was not my fault, don’t put your blame on me.”
Breathe, she told herself. Although, she could not look him in the eyes. “I know; I’m sorry. But He gave us this life, this legacy, and we have no heir to it.”
He let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m done talking about this. I will not fight you and your misguided beliefs.” He turned from her, resting Children of Valhalla on his nightstand. With the lamp off and his glasses atop his book, he laid on his side.
And this was her love’s answer?
“Remember when we bought this lot and rebuilt the home in hopes we would be a family of three? Remember all the clothes we bought, our many baby showers, the books you so carefully curated, your written adventures, to read him one day? Remember Loki? We thought he’d have a friend to run around in the backyard with; he was so patient.”
But their German Shepard, named after Burton’s hometown, died almost a year ago.
“Enough, Annaliese. I’m tired.”
“Ari was supposed to be here in that empty crib,” she pointed to, knowing he did not look, “and he’s not. These nights get quieter every year, and you know it. Don’t take this from me, too, Burton. Please.”
He did look. For the past year, he wanted to ask her if they should take it down. He didn’t because if he were honest with himself, he could not find the strength. Did not have the will himself to dismantle it against her wishes. His.
Could it not hurt to try, if not one last time? If not for his wife to let go, if not for him to find his will, his strength, and make peace with a reality God did not have planned for him. Lest He tested him as He did all those years ago with him and his siblings, when the annual population control event, the Sona Festival, claimed their parents. He did not help raise his younger brother for his experience to go to waste.
He did test him, he was sure. His might, his will, his strength. His patience. Temper. Lust. He, too, had never missed a prayer and had spoken nothing but the good faith of his Lord and Saviour. He organized charities and referred good but troubled men to either his younger brother or older sister. He’d been nothing but a loyal husband who provided for his wife’s every need.
“How sure are you?” he asked in his soft baritone.
In sickness and in health, for better, for worse.
“Till death do us part.”
She, his wife, his life. His home, who he loved. Burton turned and brushed a blonde strand from her eye.
His smile, while soft, enlightened her. She caressed his cheek with her thumb, holding his chin in the groove of her palm.
“Till death do us part.”
For Burton, she prayed. If He failed to submit to her grieving heart’s cries, she knew best.
Dread filled their blood as the months came and gone. Sleep evaded them. When away from the office, Burton spent most of his time locked up in his library. A good book is an escape, and his favourites escaped him, much like Annaliese’s diet a couple of days out of the week. She took a minute to breathe every morning lest she got caught up in a mood. Her sixteen-year-old students did not deserve a sliver of her wrath.
One night she felt a stir. Subtle. She moved, and a trickle walked down her leg. “Burton,” she called, soft and unsure. She urged a foot forward, and the trickle doubled. “Burton,” in confidence. She pushed on for a third; a leak sprung. “Burton!” and he burst from his library.
To see his wife’s bright smile and her raining blue eyes washed on him a euphoric feeling. A quiet rain unlike that of his wife. His steps were slow but careless. Who cared about a bit of water under his feet? Her wet lips weren’t much of a deterrent either; he kissed them several times. The salty taste unphased him. When the two rushed to Seidr Medical, time escaped them, and He submitted.
A beautiful baby boy laid in their arms, and with his lulling cry, Annaliese called out hoarsely, “Ari.”
“Ari,” a quiet, stuttering breath. “My boy.”
What excuse did Annaliese have now? She shouldn’t have doubted Him. Shouldn’t have questioned Him. He and His plan rewarded them an heir, a legacy, a warm response to their love. Foul of her to say He mocked her, for she reaped her blessings at last.
But her heart jumped, an eerie, irregular beat that continued to play as she rocked her son, silent curses under her breath.
Ari stilled in her arms, his cry a lulling silence.
Burton’s quiet, stuttering breath did nothing to warm his boy’s skin as he kissed his head and begged. Prayed.
“N-n-no. No, no, no…”
He can’t. He can’t. Can’t, can’t, can’t! He mocked her, yes. He teased her! A cruel, sick joke—why? What was she to do now that He had killed him? That malevolent false prophet!
Burton struggled with time, a complex phenomenon to Annaliese. When family and friends caught wind of their tragedy, they showered the couple with love, a foreign body, a haunting feeling as the embodiment of theirs lived out its last stretch in a matter of minutes. Annaliese found it strange how—no, weak—Burton grovelled on his hands and knees. Tore her gaze from him every night he did, for she would see herself in his stead throughout her life. His silent prayers fell; did he not understand? She offered a hand, and he slapped it away every time. Pathetic. That could not be her, no. No more. His false prophet did not deserve worship and praise and love. He did not deserve Burton’s tears and gruff voice. Her melancholic God did. This God whose waves washed over her again and again. This God whose shoulder she bit and screamed, its voice telling her it’s okay to fall and lay. Its eye wavered in her sight, the very eye that promised her the true meaning of life. And she was to listen to its sharp demands had she not remembered.
It is the study of nature, a precursor to chemistry, and has evolved as a scientific technique akin to chemical reactions. A great many people study alchemy. Burton devoted a good five years of his life to the science of alchemy and its substantial power. Annaliese came to remember the teachings and practices she underwent when she got serious with him for their first few years. One part science, one part mystical, some said, and there had been her dream. Within the stranger things.
As lovely as silence was around dinner, Burton fell curious. “Annaliese,” his voice soft, almost too quiet for her ears. “How long are we going to let them hold him? Is it not time? We need to rest. Ari… he needs to rest.”
There was a pause between her next bite. She bothered not looking up, knowing she’d remind herself how dull her eyes were. Dull and sunken and green, and in no need to compete with his blue judgement. Instead, she cleared her throat and straightened up against the spine of her chair. She drank a quarter of a full glass of water. “I made my peace.”
“So, what keeps you? What am I supposed to tell our family and—”
She braved his eyes. “What family?”
“You know what I mean.”
She rolled her eyes. Bit down on a meatball doused in a velvet-like cream sauce. Took a sip. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
She let silence string him on and revelled as frustration rattled him. “Human Transmutation.” Smiled at the mixture of madness and confusion lighting up his face.
“You’re a damn fool for scouting my library!”
She snickered. “Please. I’ve been in and out of there, and you’ve never had a problem.”
“That’s not the point, Annaliese. You had no right to pick my lock.”
“Is it really picking if I know where the key is?”
Breathe, he told himself and bit into his meatball, flushing it down with a quarter of a glass of water. What a calm; the night breeze coming in through the ajar window cooled his skin. “We’re not talking about this.”
“Why not?” How could a subject like this not be discussed? However few and far between they were, there were sightings of successful human transmutations. Burton’s articles said as much. “Don’t you think we should at least try?”
The table shuddered under Burton’s fist, phased everything on it but her. “No, Annaliese! You don’t get it! Alchemy is not a toy to be played with.”
Did the people understand that part? A great many people abused this privilege, one gifted to them by the Royal Family. Either there weren’t enough Imperial Alchemists to catch them all, or some themselves were complicit in taking advantage of a secondary power bestowed upon them by the Royal Administration. Authority.
“But it is a science we explore.”
He chuckled. Don’t be foolish, he wanted to say. “I know you understand the Law of Equilibrium.”
She drank, spite in her eyes.
He shook his gaze from her foul attitude. Knew he could not cause harm but struggled to unclench his fists. “There are consequences, Annaliese. You know this. What are we supposed to give up to bring him back?”
Her brows bounced as she drank again, watching the red on his face deepen as she kept her lips sealed.
Again he shook from her gaze and took a minute to alleviate some air from his lungs. The tension in his fists cooled, and his fingers eased themselves from his palm. “You remember Clive?”
She nodded. “Of course, I remember him. You went on that expedition with him, and the last I saw him, he was the best man at Oliver’s wedding.” She gasped. “You know what? Maybe I should take up this offer with your brother instead. He is the smartest one in the family.”
“Listen,” he ordered, “do you remember how he lost his son, Joseph?”
She nodded. “The Sona Festival.” Nothing more wretched than that.
“And do you know what he did? He performed human transmutation to bring him back. And like I said, you know the law of equilibrium; it’s the conservation of mass and its properties—matter cannot be made from nothing, diminished to nothing, nor can you make more from less.”
“One kilogram should equal one kilogram.”
Her glass stood empty. “But here’s where you lose me. If you are telling me Clive lost his right arm for his son, what equals a body? He cremated his son, Burton, so what is your point?”
“You are so—”
“I am so what?”
Will and patience, funny things. The two shared a common denominator. Not always, but with Annaliese? Sometimes. “Clive might’ve lost his life if not for Elizabeth.”
“Enlighten me.” The last she knew, Elizabeth was at the wrong time, in the wrong place.
Clive’s truth choked him because if Annaliese ever convinced him? “She gave her life for his. She was there, Annaliese. Don’t be so foolish to think we can transmute our dead son alive.”
Foolish? No. “I’m desperate. There’s a difference.” He knew this feeling, he understood it, and still, he fought back. But if persistence weren’t in her blood, her students might not have done honest work in education or trade. “Is alchemy not one part science and one part mystical? The concept of Irony eludes people still, even me. But you know this. You graduated at the top of your class. You serve in the Imperial Service. You have a library you slave yourself away in when you get the chance and a safe full of articles on Human Transmutation. Why?”
He sat there, the wind in place of his voice, and she expected nothing less because if she knew her husband, she understood he could not control the slight rise of an eyebrow. The mystical part of alchemy—Irony, Wonderland, the Philosopher’s Theory—consumed most of his research aside from his expedition notes.
Annaliese had gone mad, he thought, no refuting that. But damn him. She was going to madden him to hell. God would not have given them alchemy if the act of playing God outside of childbirth was not once in their favour.
He took a slow, stable breath. “Answer me honestly, please.” For better or for worse. “How sure are you to take this risk?”
For a second, she shied from his eyes, a slight curl on her lips. “Till death do us part,” and a thank you, her eyes said.
Burton recounted the history of those who performed the act before. The articles and opinions of those very few successful cases, though still shrouded in a tinge of mystery. It nagged him in the back of his mind, his sense. If God wanted, He would. Yet here, his wife tempted him of a reality long past. Of a son he said his peace to. Even with Clive and Elizabeth’s failed attempt so ingrained in him, Burton shrugged it off.
A month later, morning rose. When Burton wrapped his arms around her, even for a little while, her heart calmed. And the quiet, chilled air embraced them. They knew they could not stay in bed for another hour. Annaliese had to walk to the morgue and plead for the right to share the day with her little Ari that she kept preserved against Burton’s wishes. To soon set him down in the center of the incantation circle they drew the night before. In no circumstance must she utter human transmutation—in her voice, her body.
See no sin, speak no sin, hear no sin, else the wrath of God shall rain hellfire, a religious mantra.
She thought, am I mad? Will he love me when all is said and done?
Like the God she walked away from, she gave Burton hope. Strung a few sweet little buzz words and batted her beautiful green eyes before him, and voila. Enchanted. How would he love her if things were said and done and she was no longer there? How would she if he were the one gone?
Night fell in a blink of an eye, and it was nearly not enough time. Annaliese loosened her warm, tight arms around the muslin blanket she knitted almost six years ago. As gently as she could, she set Ari down in the center of the incantation. She and Burton stood on opposite ends, both on their knees.
She steadied her nerves. She tried to. “In sickness and in health.”
He let his loose for no better reason. “For better, for worse.”
The two met eyes. “Till death do us part.” Before they closed them.
With his hands on the edge of the incantation, Burton prayed. With hers, she hoped. If this did not call Ari back to them…
The lines of the incantation glowed. The air stayed quiet save for the whistling of the wind coming in through an open window, save for the shortness of their breath, a crack, a pop, the drum in their chests. Save for the bright flash. The sudden harsh wind rocking them opened their eyes, and a thin, crystal white streak whizzed around them and almost drowned out the faintest of cries.
Ari writhed in his muslin dome.
Burton could almost crack a laugh as mad as those white coats in his medical serials. “You were right,” he said, quiet. “You were goddamn right!” and his face had Annaliese cackling.
Had Ari’s cries sound deafening as the room dimmed under a sombre sunrise.
“Ari!” they cried.
Burton tried to reach for his son but fell face-first into the hardwood floor. A wet, sticky substance kissed his skin and clothes, his cheek. Although his eyes were open, the lights upstairs went out.
Annaliese? A rupture in her stomach stopped her. She coughed hard and heavy and once in her hand, disturbed. It dripped from her palm and in and around the droplets underneath her. As her vision fogged and her skin ran cold and pale, she blinked once to focus. Twice. The third time her eyes flashed open; she stumbled around for nothing coddled her. Nothing. And she stood in this endless stretch of black as if the sharp pain in her stomach was but a rumble, a call for hunger.
There stood a figure. Human-like. White and almost featureless.
She could not place the being, did not even shake, but the surrounding nothingness? It struck a familiar chord. Burton said something of a fabled concurrent reality best described as a void in one of his books.
“Common folk call me God. They call me a prophet, an angel. Sometimes the devil. But I, my dear Annaliese Armstrong, am the world. I am the universe, and I am you. But you may call me Truth. Welcome to Wonderland.”
Truth’s perfect blend of masculine and feminine bewildered her. But not much as when she realized. “Wonderland is real,” she thought in a whisper. “Wonderland is real. Then that means—”
“It could mean so.”
Truth closed the distance between them. “The Philosopher’s Theory. If Wonderland is real, then, of course, it means the theory is true. Is that not right?”
“I-I—” What could she say?
Impelling a blonde curl from the irresolute hold on her face, Truth smiled. “Let me show you the truth.”
Luminous ethereal hands slithered out from a snake-like eye behind her and affixed to her stomach, her arms, her legs, and piece by piece did she deteriorate. Scream, she wanted. Writhe, she did. Starting slow and soft, she experienced a small thump in her head. A headache? No. It grew. A migraine? It couldn’t be. It drummed against her skull. But what was it? A picture? No! A movie? She didn’t know!
“Stop. Stop! Please, stop! I can’t take much more. I can’t. I-I… it’s too much!”
“Mom,” she heard. Low, husky, reminiscent of Burton, her first thought. No. “It’s okay.”
Hunched over on her knees, ears muffed by her hands, she brought her eyes up at Truth and thought she understood. “I-I… I-I know the truth.” She stood. “I know the truth! Why didn’t we think of this?” she asked herself. So, she stared Truth down with the same level of curiosity that damned her husband and son. “Show me again. It was all too fast, but I need to know how to make a Philosopher’s Stone. Please.”
Truth cracked a mad laugh, flashing a dazed Annaliese with a fierce smile. “I’m sorry, Annaliese. I can’t do that.”
Foolish thing! “What? No. You can’t do that. Either you show me, or you take me to my baby boy. He’s right there! He’s right there,” she trailed off.
“For the price you’ve paid, the truth can only be shown once.”
Price? “What do you mean? What price?”
Truth’s smile brightened. “Oh, you don’t know?”
A striking pain hit her. Almost too familiar. She looked down at her stomach for a second before she shot a cautioned glare at Truth. Coughing up blood into her hands, she tried to lunge at them, planted a foot forward, but crashed down into the small puddle of her blood.
Ari caught her eyes. He, motionless. With what strength she found, she crawled out to him. Tried refusing the sudden sharp strides of pain in her abdomen. Don’t stop. Don’t stop! As she got close, she reached for the flap of her boy’s blanket and his face, his skin—his hair and eyes! Burton was right to take her for a goddamn fool!
Was this God’s little prank on her for trying to play His role one too many times? He certainly played her as one.
She gasped. Burton! Her eyes met her still husband. His blood soaked the underbelly of Ari’s blanket, too shallow to drown the lifeless monstrosity she forced into the world.
Burton. For he could not hold her in his warmth. For she could not be swept off her feet like the day of their intimate wedding. She could not believe. No, she could not see it. She refused!
“This is not what I wanted. This is not what I wanted! Truth, goddammit! God, please! I’m sorry!”
She crawled to him, recounting the basic incantation circle of flame alchemy on her palms in blood. Pinned to his red, pulsating flesh, she sang a silent, shaky prayer.