by Joyce Carol Oates
Art by Mark Evan Walker
1. Quito, Ecuador
He’d tried to kill her. She was certain.
It was not a thought that came lightly, or casually—My husband wants to kill me. I must protect myself.
“Audrey! Be careful.”
The husband’s voice was raised in alarm, yet also in annoyance. Even in her moment of panic the wife registered this.
She’d slipped, and had almost fallen—but the husband had gripped her arm, and steadied her.
Carefully they’d been descending narrow stone steps. Nearly two hundred steps of weatherworn rock, set in a hillside. And at the top, from an ancient churchyard of an abandoned stone chapel, a spectacular view of the many hills of Quito, Ecuador, of which most were densely inhabited as the hills of nightmare.
On all sides were small multicolored stone and stucco dwellings jammed together, that baffled the eye as with a powerful vertigo. So many people! And all unknown to us.
And beneath her feet, as they began their climb back down, were the stone steps that were alarmingly narrow, and part-eroded, and seemed to descend forever. On the outer edge of the steps was a railing—at which the wife clutched like a frightened child.
The husband was close behind her; she’d felt his impatience during the descent, for she moved slowly, in a trance of apprehension she understood to be exaggerated in his eyes. And she felt that he was crowding her. The toes of his hiking shoes nudged her heels, as if to spur her onward—downward. When the wife balked, the husband would laugh and murmur, Sorry!—but a moment later, he would be nudging her again.
Though the husband was eighteen years older than the wife, the wife was a less practiced hiker, and had little of the husband’s physical confidence.
“I’m sorry! I can’t go any faster . . .”
“Audrey, you’re doing fine. Just don’t look down.”
It was the husband’s way to laugh at the wife’s fears, which seemed to him phantom-fears. Climbing up the narrow stone steps had required much of the wife’s energy but she had not felt that she was in immediate danger of falling—somehow, climbing back down was far more strenuous.
Though she’d been short of breath on the climb she’d had time to pause and admire the vista of lush, bright-green foliage amid the multicolored little houses as the husband, who was behind her, stopped frequently to take pictures with his new, complicated camera. He hadn’t hurried her at all. But on the way down the husband had put away his camera. Descending was far more awkward, and arduous, than ascending—the wife had to carefully position her feet, in the hiking shoes the husband had bought for her, that strained tendons in both her calves, just above the ankle; sharp stabbing pains shot up her legs, that filled her with dismay. The picturesque stone steps were far steeper than the sort of steps to which the wife was accustomed, without realizing she was accustomed. The husband would be impatient with her, if he knew. He’d accused her more than once—laughingly, but cuttingly—of being a spoiled American tourist.
The husband would criticize her for expecting first-world conditions in a third-world country. Wasn’t this just like her! So the wife dared say nothing that might be interpreted by him as a complaint.
Nor could she catch her breath. Her heart beat unpleasantly rapidly like the wings of a trapped moth. The altitude of Quito was nine thousand feet (which the husband had promised would be no problem, not a serious height, like some heights he’d hiked in his younger life—Kilimanjaro at 19,300 feet, for instance; some peaks in Peru)—she was beginning to be lightheaded, and there was a strange quick pulse beating behind her eyes. The husband had laughed at her fears of altitude sickness but he’d asked his doctor for medication
before they’d left on the trip, and he’d given the pills to her with careful instructions: the first to be taken twenty-four hours before arrival in Ecuador, the second on the first day of arrival, and so forth. Henry had assured her that Diamox was guaranteed to prevent altitude sickness—“So long as you don’t convince yourself that you’re sick, darling.”
It had been one of the husband’s ongoing charges, or jests, from the start of their marriage, that the wife imagined much: illnesses, misfortunes, the not-always-friendly intentions of others.
The husband had insisted that the wife drink bottled water, and take ibuprofen, as he was doing, to prevent altitude sickness. And in the first exciting hours of their arrival in the capital city in the Andes, she’d thought that she would be all right—she’d followed the husband’s instructions carefully, and seemed to be adjusting well. A kind of gaiety had suffused her, a hope that the husband would not be disappointed in her as a traveling companion, as he’d been in the past.
And so, eagerly the wife had said yes, of course she wanted to climb the two hundred stone steps set so beautifully in a hillside, that led to a famous chapel at the top; the husband wanted to take pictures, and did not want to make the climb alone.
Rarely was the wife able to withstand the husband’s wishes. The husband was so enthusiastic, so strong-willed, and so energetic! It was a surprise to all to learn that Henry Wheeling was sixty-nine—he might have been a decade younger. Often he was impatient with others for their inability to keep up with him mentally or physically; often he was impatient with the wife. If he made a request of her, like asking her to join him on a steep climb, and if, apologetically, she declined, he would simply ask her again, and again, with increasing irascibility, until she gave in. She could not withstand him in the smallest things, and certainly not in the largest. And so she would think naively—This will please him! He will smile, and love me again.
How long this descent! The tendons in the wife’s calves throbbed with fiery pain.
Yet, the end was in sight. The wife hardly dared look—a glance down made her feel dizzy.
Then, something happened. As she’d feared, she lost her footing suddenly, or her balance. Desperately she clutched at the railing which, to her horror, turned out not to be secure—she might almost have broken off a section of it, in her hand.
“Oh! Help me . . .”
She screamed. She was certain that she would fall, she could not regain her balance.
Of course, the husband was close behind her, on a step above her, and gripped her upper arm, and held her still.
“Darling, there’s no danger! Not if you just stay calm. Hang onto the railing . . .”
“The railing isn’t secure . . .”
“Hang onto me, then. Try to breathe calmly. You’ve been on a steeper climb than this, remember?—all those stone steps down to the shore, in Capri?”
The wife could not reply coherently, she was too upset. The wife was sure that the husband had been pressing her to go faster, nudging the backs of her hiking shoes.
The wife stammered: “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, Henry.”
She’d come close to slipping, and falling—she was certain. If she’d fallen down these stone steps, very likely she’d have struck her head and fractured her skull, or broken her neck, or her back . . .
When they’d planned the trip, the wife had had a vision of some sort of accident, or illness; she had the dread of the nontraveler for something going wrong, in a foreign, unfamiliar place.
She understood that she imagined too much, as Henry pointed out to her. If only she could relax and enjoy herself.
She adored, in the husband, this air of self-assurance, confidence. Henry was the person to whom others naturally turned, and whom others trusted.
Of course the husband was likely to be dismayed by her wariness, and disappointed. But there were times when he quite seemed to like her dependence upon him—in financial matters, especially. And he was her protector. He would not want anything to happen to her, surely?
Now that she’d been stricken with panic, the wife continued the descent with painstaking slowness. She was trying to calm her breathing, that threatened to become hyperventilation.
They had been in Quito less than six hours: Already it seemed to the wife that they’d been here much longer.
The couple was en route to the Galapagos Islands, and would spend two nights in Quito before flying to the islands. This was the wife’s first visit to South America. In the foothills of the Andes, near the equator, it was a mild, overcast day, not nearly so warm as the wife had anticipated; when clouds obscured the bright sun she shivered, as a thin, stinging wind came to insinuate itself through her lightweight clothing.
“Just a few more steps, darling. Careful!”
The husband was both steadying the wife as if she were a precious child, and expressing his impatience with her. His fingers, that gripped her upper arm tight, contained a sort of fury that could send her helpless and screaming down the steps if he wished, for the husband was surprisingly strong.
She’d seen him chide their dog—his dog—when the Labrador retriever eagerly trotted into the kitchen of their home with muddy paws—Damn you! Somebody should murder you.
Of course, this was a joke. This was not a serious remark. Yet, it was a remark Henry sometimes made, with an exasperated laugh, which the wife had heard numerous times.
At last, the wife reached the bottom of the steps. Solid ground, steady earth! She was enormously relieved. Through a fissure in the clouds overhead a fiery white sun emerged, causing the wife’s eyes to narrow in pain.
The husband was saying that there hadn’t been any real danger, and that the wife had done very well to come down the steps so carefully. Now that the danger was past, the wife was feeling giddy.
The husband observed that the wife needed to have more confidence in herself—“Some of the tours in the Galapagos will have some ‘difficult’ terrain.”
Quickly the wife said yes, yes she knew.
Wanting to assure the husband, Don’t lose faith in me! I will try to be a better wife.
Back at the hotel, the wife’s headache beat harder. The husband gave her another of the yellow capsules, which she took eagerly.
Altitude sickness had seized her, like a giant claw. She felt as if she’d been physically assaulted. The husband seemed now to allow that she was quite ill, genuinely so—she could not even bear his touching her, in an effort to give comfort. The wife could do nothing but lie down weakly, fully clothed, in the beautifully furnished if rather dark hotel room, her heart beating strangely and her head wracked with pain.
“I’ll cancel our dinner reservation”—like one hoping to be challenged the husband spoke in a wistful voice.
The wife weakly protested no, he must not cancel. The wife knew that the husband had been looking forward to dinner in one of the highly regarded Spanish restaurants in the Old Quarter, for the husband took meals very seriously.
The husband insisted yes, he would cancel; he didn’t want to go out alone, and leave her if she was feeling so ill.
“Henry, it’s just altitude sickness. It isn’t a real illness.” She could speak only in a whisper. Her head was throbbing violently.
Their hotel, which had once been a private mansion, of pale blue-gray stone, with a mahogany interior, high vaulted ceilings, and an interior courtyard alit with bright, darting little birds, was at the edge of the historic Old Quarter of Quito. There were several Americans staying at the hotel, also en route to the Galapagos, who were colleagues of Henry Wheeling at the distinguished research institute in Princeton, New Jersey of which he was director.
The wife was aware of these people only marginally. She didn’t know their names. She supposed, since the trip to the Galapagos was quite expensive, that they were senior researchers at the Institute. When she’d asked Henry who was coming with them on the complicated trip which involved a flight from Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil, and another flight westward into the islands, the husband had seemed evasive—“I’ve told you, Audrey. I’m not sure. You don’t know these people, in any case.”
It was curious to the wife that no matter how many times she asked the husband who his colleagues on the trip would be, he’d never seemed to know exactly. And so she’d thought—She is a new, young love. He is paying her way.
And then again she thought—But Henry would not. He is a gentleman, he would not want to embarrass his wife.
Stricken with a raging headache, the wife could not think coherently. She lay helpless on her bed, flat on her back, head positioned on pillows as she had to guard herself against the slightest movement, which would cause sharp pain.
The husband was saying that he had better stay in the room with the wife, who was looking deathly pale. He would order a room-service meal. “Do you think you’ll be able to eat, darling? Anything? No?”
Even in her misery the wife was touched that the husband, who was so exacting about food and wine, was willing to stay in the room with her; this would be an enormous disappointment to him. The wife said, “Please go without me, Henry. I don’t want you to stay here.”
“I wouldn’t feel right, Audrey. I’d better stay with you.”
The husband reached for the wife’s hand. Her fingers were small, vague, and chill, caught in the warm clasp of the husband’s fist.
At such moments, when the wife presented no resistance to the husband, and the husband could protect or comfort her, their emotional rapport was considerable. The wife felt a deep love for the husband, and she believed that the husband loved her. It was when the wife opposed the husband, in any way large or small, that the husband’s disdain for her, that wounded her greatly, was evident.
For they were not equals—of course. Henry Wheeling had a distinguished career. Audrey had scarcely had a career at all.
Here was a fact the wife hadn’t wished to acknowledge: The husband hadn’t seemed to want her to accompany him to Ecuador. Since she’d first met him approximately eight years ago he’d been speaking of taking a trip to the Galapagos, and at that time he’d certainly wanted her to come with him; he’d been newly in love with her, and very attentive. But more recently, while planning the complicated trip, the husband had been far less insistent, and had not shared much information with the wife. He’d purchased books on the Galapagos which he’d read without passing on to her; he’d studied maps. He had warned her that the Galapagos hikes were on “difficult” terrain—rock-strewn volcanic islands, steep hills. They would be taken from island to island in dinghies, and they would disembark sometimes in a rocky surf, not directly onto dry land. The dinghies, which were open, outboard-motor boats, were sometimes swamped with water. Darling, you’ve said you get seasickness easily. Well—the Galapagos Islands are surrounded by the sea!
The husband had a new, younger woman in his life, possibly. His secret was, he was in love with someone else.
The more Audrey thought of it, the more self-evident this seemed. For she was the husband’s third wife. He was a man who had used up women, you might be led to think.
There was something debasing in this, the wife hadn’t wanted to acknowledge when they’d first met. She had fallen in love with Henry Wheeling—naively.
Marriage to Henry Wheeling had seemed to the wife like stepping into a large shiny vehicle, the husband’s possession. It was not jointly owned, it was his. As she had stepped trustingly into a stranger’s life, but he had not stepped into hers, she felt more or less constantly disoriented.
Eight years before, the wife had been the new, younger woman in Henry Wheeling’s life; his wife of the time had seemed truly old. Now, there was little difference between her (she was fifty-one) and the predecessor-wife whom she could recall only vaguely like a figure in film seen long ago.
In fact, at the time of the divorce the predecessor-wife had been younger than Audrey was now. She’d felt guilt for supplanting the woman with whom (she’d thought) she might have been friends. . . . But the husband had insisted—The marriage is over, dead. It has been for years. I’m deeply in love with you, darling.
Henry had seemed so sincere, even anxious that she return his feeling for her! The effect on Audrey had been dazzling and disorienting, as if a blinding light had been shone into her eyes, that had become adjusted to semidarkness.
She had been married before, as a tremulous young woman in her twenties. She had loved her composer-husband very much and had been devastated when he’d died of a quick-acting pancreatic cancer at the age of thirty-one. She had not married again and had ceased to think of herself as marriageable. In time, it would seem astonishing to her that her (deceased, much-mourned) husband had ever loved her.
Fortunately, she’d been able to lose herself in satisfying work—helping to manage the philanthropic affairs of her large, affluent family, who lived in residences in New York City and upstate New York, Maine, Florida, and St. Bart’s, and had established a foundation. It was through her work with the Clarendon Foundation that she’d met Henry Wheeling—unless it was Henry Wheeling who’d met her.
She was an “heiress”—(the term was awkwardly nineteenth century, suggestive of spinsterhood)—for her grandparents had pitied her as a young, childless widow, and had provided generously for her even before their deaths. She’d had no suspicion that Henry Wheeling might be interested in her for her money—at least, not exclusively for her money—for at the outset he’d seemed to love her, and to be delighted by her, very much.
She’d reminded him of Audrey Hepburn, he’d said. The very name “Audrey” was fortuitous.
As the husband’s third wife, she had learned belatedly that there was a clear pattern in her husband’s marriages. Liaisons with young(er) women overlapped with deteriorating marriages; as a liaison evolved into a marriage, eventually a new liaison was formed, overlapping with the new deteriorating marriage. So far as Audrey could determine her husband had remained married to his first wife for eighteen years, and to his second wife for eleven years. With each wife the difference in ages was increasing as well. But the third wife, married in her mid forties, had to concede that the wives of earlier eras had been younger than she, of course, as Henry had been younger. In his mid and late sixties Henry Wheeling had lost interest in women his own age, who were invisible to him as objects of sexual attraction; Audrey had been “young” to him then, and her delicate-boned pale-haired beauty, or what remained of that beauty, had continued to captivate his interest, to a degree.
Buffeted by headache pain, the wife lay very still in the darkened bedroom. In an adjoining sitting room, a phone rang. The wife could hear the husband pick up the receiver and speak quietly, and then the husband was standing over the wife, explaining that one of his colleagues from the Institute had called, and asked him to join a group for dinner. “But I won’t go, if you’d rather I didn’t. I’m happy to have room service here in the room, with you.”
The wife felt a swirl of nausea. The wife could not have tolerated the smell of food in close quarters; it was all she could do to keep from leaning over the edge of the bed and helplessly vomiting onto the floor, for she was too weak to make her way to the bathroom.
The wife insisted no, the husband must not stay with her, but must go out to dinner.
“Are you sure, Audrey?”—the husband stood over her, brooding.
She was too weak now to open her eyes, to observe him. She could barely respond to whatever it was he was saying. And after a while, when she could open her eyes, she saw that he was gone—the bedroom was empty.
She did not want to think—He’s with her now. This has all been planned. Why did I not see this, am I so blind?
She had no memory of a steep hill in Capri. Or any visit to Capri at all. That must have been another, earlier wife.
A spike in her forehead. Between her eyes.
He was pounding the spike into the bone of her skull, with a mallet.
Don’t be ridiculous, darling. Of course I love you.
How could there be anyone else in my life—except you?
He was laughing at her. Not openly but with a kind of pity.
She tried to push him away. She clutched at her own head, as if to lessen the throbbing.
She was feeling ever more nauseated. Naively she thought—If I am sick, maybe this nightmare will end. The poison will be purged.
With apologies, the husband had left the hotel. You could see that Henry Wheeling was a gentleman, and very solicitous of his wife. She supposed that he was with colleagues at the Spanish restaurant in the Old Quarter. She wondered if there was a young, female employee with them—one of the research scientists.
Eighteen years, the first marriage. Eleven years, the second.
How humiliating, the third marriage might end abruptly, after only seven years . . .
She was haunted by the memory of her fear on the stone steps: her husband’s impatience, the way he’d nudged the backs of her shoes. The way he’d laughed at her (silly, baseless) fears. The way he’d finally gripped her upper arm as if he’d had to restrain himself from throwing her down . . .
There had been other occasions, more frequent in the past year, when it was difficult for the wife, a woman of above-average intelligence, not to suspect that the husband no longer loved her. There’d been a singular incident about six weeks ago—of which, at the present time, she didn’t want to think.
Her family, relatives, friends had all seemed to like Henry Wheeling, for it was very easy to like Henry Wheeling. Yet, they’d suggested that Audrey and her husband-to-be might draw up a prenuptial agreement.
And one of her cousins had murmured, You might want to look into his background, Audrey. Just to be sure.
She’d resented such suggestions. She had not dared bring up the possibility of a prenuptial agreement, for fear that Henry would be insulted, and not want to marry her; it was something of an affront, and Henry Wheeling himself earned a high salary at his institute. Impulsively she broke off relations with some of her family members, as with some of her oldest friends who’d known her young husband many years before. What did they know of Henry Wheeling! He’d been a professor (neurobiology), a research scientist, a consultant, and now he was the director of one of the most prestigious research institutes in the country. They were jealous, envious. They did not wish her well. She’d been thrilled at the prospect of remarrying after so long and of being again loved, like a person who has been misdiagnosed as permanently paralyzed, told now that she can walk after all . . .
I love you very much, Audrey.
. . . deeply in love with you.
Now she had to wonder: Did the husband want to kill her, or—did he simply hope that she might die . . . ? . . .
# # #
Read the exciting conclusion in our current issue, on sale now!
"Equatorial" by Joyce Carol Oates, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.
Keep these great mystery stories coming all year long ... Subscribe now!