He came to me himself and told me that he
loved my wife and wanted to marry her. He
wanted my permission and of course needed me
to annul her, to risk disgrace, so that he could
achieve his ambition. He spoke directly to me,
without fear of retribution (I could not hurt him),
but with courtesy and a respect for my
predicament and an appropriate shame for his
own betrayal, however honorable it was.

They had been lovers for several months before
he approached me. I had, in my own way,
arranged the courtship. He had not exactly been
my friend, nor would I have wanted a friend for
this charge. But we had been together on the
battlefield and did not, from my vantage point,
harbor any animosity toward one another.

I could tell, from the first time I saw them
speaking, that they were meant for each other.
That she would do him good, would uncover
what lay hidden, would blow on any spark of
genius, would nurture what must be nurtured
and root out what impediments remained. She
was a natural teacher, if a stern and exacting
one, aware that kindness by itself produces only
kindness, and cruelty only cruelty, but when
joined together, kindness and cruelty can
galvanize the pupil, instill a boldness that has
not only brilliance and power but magic in it.

Since my injury, I could not satisfy her, and this
inability saddened me. Honestly, I could never
really satisfy her. There was an insatiability
about her that both frightened and enthralled
me. There were times, in the years we spent
together, when I believed her essential spirit
would be dampened by her marriage to me.

Yes, it is true that we had children—three boys.
All dead by the time they were seven, one of
them before his first year passed. She loved our
sons, relished her power as a mother and took
seriously her role as tutor and molder of their
characters. And was grief-stricken, though her
grief frightened me as well. A carapace
developed around her, hardening her with each
tragedy.

It is weird to me that I have outlived her. I
thought she might very well live forever. There
was something mysteriously perennial about
her—as if she had emerged from a deep core of
planetary substance and was capable, if she
applied herself to it, as she so wanted to do, of
invulnerability. But no one remains invulnerable.

She was, in her own way, a deeply spiritual
woman. I have remarried—a young and docile
wife, a deeply spiritual woman too, but more
naturally gracious, kinder and less hungry in her
physical and emotional appetites. She cares for
me and is, she tells me, content to do so. This
suits me well, I have told myself many times,
especially when the full extent of the scandal
and tyranny and horror were revealed. My first
wife’s suicide. Her second husband’s head
fastened, rightly so, to the end of a pike.

I should feel privileged, blessed, fortunate. And I
am fortunate with the trade I made in wives. But
I sometimes still dream of her, my first wife.
Perhaps this is not uncommon for aging men
who have lived multiple lives to carry in their
wake the history of younger, fiercer loves. I still
dream of when we were happiest, after our first
son was born. I remember a few months later,
the child in the cradle beside our bed, swaddled
in the softest wool, sheared that week from a
lamb on my estate. The child waking in the
middle of the night, waking because of the
sounds of our lovemaking, our first encounter
since the birth.

And my wife—my first wife—bringing him to our
bed, holding him close to her breast, as I nestled
her body. I wrapped them both inside my arms
and studied them, with the moonlight streaming
through the rain-smeared window, as she gently
rubbed her nipple over his smiling gums, teasing
him, coaxing him into nursing, the three of us
there in bed, naked beneath the blankets, her
guiding her nipple into his mouth. We watched
our son, who would be dead within two months,
taken by the mysterious infection that plagued
most of our hamlet that spring, watched him
smile and then greedily fill himself, the thin milk
from her breast oozing from the side of his
contented mouth.



K. L. Cook is the author of three books of fiction: Last Call,
winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction; The Girl from
Charnelle, winner of the Willa Cather Award for the Contemporary
Novel; and Love Songs for the Quarantined, winner of the
Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and a long-list finalist for the Frank
O'Connor International Story Prize. His stories, poetry, and essays
have appeared widely, including Best American Mystery Stories,
Best of the West, One Story, Threepenny Review, and American
Short Fiction. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing
and Environment at Iowa State University and Spalding
University's low-residency MFA in Writing Program.
NOVEMBER 2017
HER FIRST
HUSBAND
by K.L. Cook