This is his wife in the bed. She is as pale as a piece of paper. He holds her hand, and your hand. He draws you closer. You can see her tissue-thin eyelids, the way her nose arches like yours.
He’s told you all about his wife since you’ve met. He’s said how long he’s been waiting for you to visit her. He’s said: She would have liked you. You would have been friends.
His wife is a cursed princess in the bed. He wants you to touch her. His breathing sharpens when you cup her chin in your hand.
Isn’t she beautiful, he says. He wants you to say yes. You smile and stroke her cheek with the back of your hand.
That’s good, he says. He still has hold of your hand, and her hand. She is breathing, but only slightly. Her chest barely moves. You lean forward and kiss her on the lips, softly, like a prince waking his lady. If she came awake now, she would suffer. Her flesh has curled and shrunk, her body decayed. You almost want for her to wake, to see how her pain hurts him — this streak of cruelty within you. You pull your mouth away from hers. You could feel her teeth through her thin lips. His wife is wasting away. Soon she will be only a skeleton in the bed. You wonder will he want you to touch her then, will he want you to kiss her.
When she has become a skeleton, you will no longer resemble her, his bride. For now, you could be cousins, or perhaps sisters. You pepper her face with kisses; his hand tightens round yours.
I knew you would, he says. I knew you would love her too.
I do, you say, and you let him kiss you in front of his wife, and you take her other hand so it is the three of you, connected, and her body thrums at your touch, but she will never waken. She will only wither and die. You love her for that: the quiet, fading wife. You kiss her husband until he can no longer stand it.
He says: Let’s go home.
He says: We’ll come back again.
He says: Goodbye, darling, and you say it too: Goodbye, darling.
He takes you back to his home. He says again isn’t she beautiful and you say yes, oh yes, and he lays you down in his bed. In the dark, your face could be mistaken for his wife’s. He takes his time undressing you. He parts your legs. He says: Lie still.
He says: Please, lie still.