All three still wore the ornate dresses they had used that afternoon in the larger, more public ceremony. That, too, was part of the ritual. The woman in the center wore the most elaborate of the three outfits; the ritual was for her benefit. "Hera, Aphrodite, hear my plea," she said.
Standing to her left, her best friend from childhood leaned forward and dropped the hair into a small pot, which gleamed silver in the candlelight. "This is the one," she said.
The central figure continued: "Great goddesses, wise in the ways of love and loyalty, revenge and betrayal, I beg your help."
On her right, her second friend (whom she had met later, in school) leaned forward and dropped the fingernail clippings into the pot as well. "This is the man," she intoned.
"Let him love me with all his heart. Make him faithful, and loyal, and responsible." She leaned forward, and let the bloodied cloth fall into the bowl with the other two tokens. "This is my husband."
A door opened behind them, spilling unwanted light into the room. A male voice, puzzled, asked: "Honey? What are you doing?"
The central figure glanced back. The ritual was almost completed; power hung heavy in the air. The man shouldn't be here - he shouldn't know about this part of the wedding at all - but there was no helping that now. "Over here," she said gently.
He came into the room, and the door swung shut behind. Something soft, barely more than a breeze, stroked his hair. It made the back of his neck clench. "Should I...?" He trailed off as his eyes adjusted to the candlelight. His wife - she was his wife, as of this afternoon - and her two bridesmaids stood around a small, steel pot.
"It's okay," she told him. "Remember all those things you promised? Our vows?"
He nodded cautiously, still studying the scene in front of him. In truth, he barely remembered the ceremony at all. He'd been standing with his groomsmen in the waiting room, the music had started, he'd said some things, and then he was kissing the bride. His wedding day had come and gone in a blur.
"This is where we make sure you keep them." She turned back to the pot, raised her arms, and finished the ritual: "Make him the man I need, and bind him only to me."
He started to take a step back, but it was too late. Invisible hands held him still, pressed into and somehow through his flesh. It tingled, like an electric shock all over his body; all the way down to his bones. The feeling passed quickly, and when it was gone he looked up at her again. Her. His wife. The woman he loved. The woman he would never forsake.
"Are you all right?" she asked, suddenly concerned.
He smiled. "Yes, dear."
* * *
One of my wife's friends has an unfortunate habit* of sleeping with married men. This is partly because of an equally unfortunate tendency to believe them when they tell her that they're separated, or that the wife has said they could date other people, or similar such lemme-in-your-pants nonsense. I think it's also partly because of a natural human tendency to think of people we don't know as being less important - less human - than the people we know well.
I've written before about the role of denial in this sort of situation - the "It Just Happened" defense.
This time, though, the Beautiful Woman and I got to talking about the dynamic between this man and his wife, who also happens to be the mother of his young child. We don't know either of them, of course, but the fellow is pretty obviously a moral imbecile: a liar and a cheat. I sincerely hope that he still manages to be a good provider, but it's hard to see how he could be when he doesn't pay much attention to the effects of his actions on his wife and child. (Seriously; I'm told that he had written a letter to my wife's friend, and his wife found it and was - predictably - very angry. His immediate response, once they'd finished arguing? Call my wife's friend, the woman he'd been cheating on his wife with, for sympathy. Assuming I have the story straight, he's clearly a moral and emotional moron.) So how does anyone end up with someone like that?
I'm not going to try to answer that: for one thing, there's an enormous variety of answers, depending on individual cases; for another, that sort of discussion tends to stray towards blaming the victim, and I'd prefer to avoid that. However, in the course of our conversation, the Beautiful Woman and I touched on one of the Great Myths:
Marriages Changes Things. (Also known as Marriage Makes You A Better Person.)
It doesn't, really. It's just a ceremony. It may change someone's expectations - for themselves or their partner - but it doesn't make anyone a different person.
("Women marry men hoping they will change. Men marry women hoping they will not. So each is inevitably disappointed." Attrib. to Albert Einstein; I first encountered a version of it in a Robert Jordan book.)
In the course of talking about that, the Beautiful Woman got to wondering: What if marriage did change you? Or what if there were a secret ceremony afterwards?
So... There you go. What if it did?
* Habit may be too strong a word for it, but it's happened more than once. To her credit, the friend in question does seem to be learning from her mistakes.