The Mirrors (part one)
The odd-job man, today walking the yard setting mole traps. He unbent his back when Charmante called out, “Hey!”
The front parlor the same as every day, the chimneypiece and its stony odor, white sheers damping sunlight; the temperature, never mind the bloomed camellias flanking the portico, wintry.
No reason to feel that emptiness ghost-ridden.
Of course, it couldn’t well be. Her aunt, who liked the phrase for calling this and that, never had meant by it spooks…most times been speaking of the solitary well-to-do, her clients, with their dusty drapes and cabinets, their spiderwebs of childhood ties blowing loose, still clinging.
The men were up in the attic, at the back of the house, where Mr. Rothesay did his scientific work. Voices just didn’t carry so far. They wouldn’t burn lights in a room not in use, and March weather didn’t much call for a fire.
And soon enough, you got heated up pushing a carpet sweeper. She had to get lunch on, two pots to boil, one pan to brown the chops, one in the oven for the rolls. She had to plug in the percolator and get the coffee started right off—and it was her day to inventory the cupboard. She’d know how much to ask for, so she could pick up things at the grocer’s on the way over tomorrow.
Rothesay’s was one of a block-end of tall attached houses, survivors of a 1901 conflagration, no more of their kind ever built in the city. The house faced north, the garden getting all the pleasantness…even the neglected patio set and quarter-circle bench more wistfully inviting than the squat bungalow furnishings of the parlor.
The climbing rose, and the bees it attracted; and intimate with this, the hoary trumpet vine that drew hummingbirds, were sweet life, and needed here.
To suit a fastidiousness of her own, Charmante would never sweep or dust while food was on the stove. She liked no dirtying of the air until after the day’s cooking was done. She began with wiping down countertops and table, settling Rothesay’s evening plate and coffee cup in a sink of soapy water. She dropped a slab of bacon on the beans, lidded them, turned the burner a notch above simmer, then moved to the dining room buffet for the linen and silver.
And here was Mr. Rothesay’s friend.
He eyed himself through the glass of the curio door. He kept at it, his back to her, while she nudged him out of her way, ratcheting loose a drawer, one, two inches…enough to snag the cloth. He spoke, and she glanced over her shoulder, catching him quizzing her with a look…but this was reflected in the oval of a small mirror on a shelf.
“You wouldn’t like to help me get that one down from over the fireplace, and carry it upstairs?”
“When I’ve had my lunch. And that means after I’ve got yours on the table.”
She had learned this, not to let their little enthusiasms run unchecked.
“If we introduce another, it will mean repositioning them all.”
“But I feel that’s just what we want to do.” Mr. Carmine answered Rothesay, who’d come down.
It was her job to brave the gloom, but once Charmante got things warmed with the stove, and once the smells began to penetrate up the staircase, the two men would filter to the dining room, carrying on their discussions, easing into their seats, telling her to ignore them.
It was why she started the coffee early. With two absentminded hands tugging corners, hindering more than helping, she laid the cloth, placed knives and forks. All the while their theme was acceleration. Something that needed to complete a circle and emerge whole at the beginning again…it was the angle of exposure that wanted measuring, not the shape or condition…
“But we haven’t tested the arrangement at all, so we have no useful observations to build from. Think, Carmine, if there is any reason we might prefer rather to slow the process down.”
“I have thought…great minds and all. You’re right, sir. We need a trial. We need the two of us stationed in the other rooms, observing. I’d like, even, if it were possible, to set up a camera near the fixture, but…tricky running a cable to it.”
“There I think…” Rothesay said.
Then: “Thank you, Mrs. Demorest.”
Charmante had carried in the tray, their two cups and the sugar. It was a foible of Rothesay’s, one he’d explained pink-faced a day or so after she’d come working for him, that he wished to drop the cubes in himself, watch each in its own time dissolve.
She had got into the kitchen and out again, with dinner and bread plates. She was not formal in her manners, not at ease using either “Mr. Rothesay” or “sir”, unless she’d caught him in a fog.
“Carmine, this afternoon?”
“If we might have an hour of Mrs. Demorest’s time.”
He said this sotto voce, not asking Charmante, but reminding Rothesay that time was money. Rothesay pinkened. She was paid by the week, and so the calculation might require a bald offer.
“I’ll stay and help you if I can. What sort of thing…?”
“Easiest thing in the world. You’ll only be walking. But we may ask you to bear with three or four repetitions.”
“You put the extra in my envelope, Mr. Rothesay. I need to see about lunch.”
She left them, their conversation back at once to the question of the camera.
The house concealed one of the city’s showpieces, a wall of brick with a lattice pattern of diamond-shaped openings, an artful handiwork forgotten, now the neighborhood had fallen so far out of the way. From Mr. Wright she had heard a fanciful story…but couldn’t see it, why anyone should leave letters for loved ones, or prayer candles, or flowers, or anything else in these niches. Hospitals were practical places; they employed crowds. Yes, there were quarantines. But also meals, laundry, deliveries of medicines. People came and went.
It was the sort of romance a trolleyman would tell his riders.
The wall overlooked two sets of tracks, those embedded in the lane and those beyond, the railroad’s. Next in view a scrubby lot, a dump for losing and finding, one man’s trash a lowlier’s making do. Tall dead brush then, peeling clapboards, seen white at a distance…the riverside row of shanty houses.
She went out to sit by the climbing rose with her plate and cup.
“Here, ma’am,” Wright’s voice came to her. “You like to have this?”
She saw straight off she wouldn’t. But he’d pulled this wingless porcelain angel out of a molehill, and kept it for her in his pocket. It would be needlessly curt to say, throw it out.
She could do that later. “Oh, thank you. Poor little thing.”
“Well, see,” he said. “Look what I found.”
He held out a palm, to take the angel back, and edged to the wall. From a niche he pulled a moth, dead, its pale green wings splayed stiff.
“Glue that on.” He showed her, delicate in his handling, the Luna held to the back of the figurine.
Bone white, still traced in gilt.
The notion was bizarre. The effect strangely moving.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)