The Mirrors (part twelve)
“The plain truth. It’s never been your fault or mine. No one ought to think less of us… You and I have done all we can.”
Veronica stood, moved behind Carolee’s chair, and rested a hand on her cousin’s shoulder. “My grandmother was Old Dumain’s daughter. Yes, he made free with the unfortunates who belonged to his house. And you appreciate, my father and uncle were his sons. None of us ever spoke to Joseph. We have to suppose he knew this. That he despised the old man and rebuffed poor Charleton because he found it all horrid.”
“Sometimes I think it was Polly warning me,” Carolee said. “I began to get a sense when I was fifteen or so, when God started…I ought to say Godfrey… Started frightening me. He was twelve years old when I was born. We always made allowances for God because he was the one that found her. He had waded down into the water and tried for an hour to drag her out. There was some sort of spell from the cold, or the hysterics, that lasted months. I suppose you’d call it a nervous breakdown…in a ten-year-old boy that seems extreme. But it’s easy to think no one had quite the right seriousness in treating him. If God could ever have been rescued, they’d lost that chance. Yet, you know, barring discoveries, I can call my brother normal…”
She smiled a little at her hands on her lap, shrugged when thunder pealed. The room had been darkening all the while. “I’ll take my own advice and say it plain. He was not inbred. But he was the worst, every other way…he seemed defective. I don’t know when they started needing to lock the cabinets. There was nothing, not the vanilla syrup, not the cough medicine, not even the peroxide. Not the paint thinner your Esta’s Charles kept in the shed. And he was cruel, nasty cruel. A story I heard…they caught God throwing a little dog, that was his mother’s, into the river. It would swim back, and he’d heave it into the current again. Trying to wear it out, curious to know how many times it would fight to live. Charles, I think, put a stop to it. God was twisted…deviant… He didn’t pity anything in the world.”
Thunder again, and Charmante remembered her father singing a song, one—but she realized it only now—he’d made up himself, just to stop her being scared. When he had been home to sing it.
I will keep myself out of the storm, yet I know I’ll pass this trial
I will keep myself safe and warm, yet if you ask me Lord
I’ll walk this mile
I can’t mind a little noise
When I see the light of Heaven
For my heart does more rejoice
And the last rhyme eluded…but…
It had been pledged, pledging…
Pledging what? Faith. Fealty. They were lyrics with some polish to them…that weary trek from Tennessee in the colored car, her Daddy fining up his verses for his little girl.
“Did you want to go up now? Just get it over with?” Taking yes for granted, Veronica sprang, and Carolee stood.
“I’m not going,” Marian said.
Carolee wasn’t either, only joining them at the landing, as a hostess would walk a guest to the door. Charmante patted William’s arm and passed him by.
Under a tall window, Veronica at hall’s end crooked a finger, playful. This story was done in apartments, double-doored parlor rooms with second and third rooms branching off. Grand guest chambers, or living quarters for half-dependent sons and daughters.
“Sakes, my whole house would fit inside one of these.”
Charmante watched William put his head around doors, looked herself, and commented…wanting mostly not this silence from him. She wanted him not worried about ghosts, superstitious of springtime thunder. “Now see. Here’s one they didn’t get the furniture out of. They didn’t even take off the bedclothes.”
“Maybe hasn’t been that long.”
“A billiard room,” she said next. “I guess people really have them. And a fish tank!”
He offered her nothing for this, but crossed to peer at the few inches of water. Charmante crossed too, glancing at the wall. Then with purpose at the others, seeing only the one rectangle where a thing had been taken down.
“No dead ones in there,” William said.
She murmured an inanity. “Poor things.”
“Don’t look, dear. I know what you’re thinking!” Veronica called, seeing Charmante hurry to the first room past the stairs. “Never mind, they’re all in here.”
“William! But, no…I’m acting like you’ve seen what I have. You’ve never been upstairs. At Rothesay’s.”
She kept her hand where it was, restraining him by the wrist, her heart picking up with fear. Veronica strode ahead. William and Charmante edged…any further step would breach the circle. These mirrors were better matched in size, and placed with a dead uniformity. The strange hum seemed almost to dance from surface to bright surface, an engine in oscillation.
“You don’t want to stay. You feel afraid of going to the center.”
“But…you knew they were here. Veronica, when did you know…? Or why would you have let Mr. Rothesay start the same business in town…or…”
“Look, though. Look.” William loosed his arm and dared pass the ring. After staring a moment, he moved to and fro in a blind search, eyes above Charmante’s head. “I see someone in there. More than one… I see a woman…”
And then he froze, lifted a warding hand. “Oh, what’s it mean?”
“Veronica, help. Come out, William. Don’t you see it’s dangerous?”
“Rance is in there. I have to know if they got Harold.”
She lunged for his shirttail. Something brushed her backing ankle.
The little cat was white, tabby-striped on one ear. Sir Christopher had gone into Rothesay’s mirrored room…
A shock of noise came, and a flash.
Charmante stood amazed at the rocketing reduplication of it, this pink veining, this tree that showered sparks. Blue-blackness. White sheets of light. And yes, a woman. At riverside, where William had upended their boat. She was bent there, reading the water’s surface.
“Come along, there is not time,” she said.
Where was a friend, to make this understood to? Charmante was in the hallway after all, William was at her side. Outdoors it was still afternoon.
“What? Polly…no time…”
A man loomed and put his arms around Polly’s shoulders. His face was blue, heavy-jowled. Polly fixed eyes on Charmante, surrendering with an odd face of triumph…
She foresaw her warning disobeyed, and ruin.
No, she was not in the hallway. She was inside the ring…her feet had somehow carried her here. Other faces waited to appear, Charmante had an awful sense of it. Among them she would see those men her mother had spoken of, pulped, burnt… She was in the ring, and to free herself, she must walk towards the mirrors.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)