The Mirrors (part twenty)
The way the mirror stuck on, she’d had the fleeting sense, was it, the phenomenon itself, the centrifugal pull inherent…
The room came unmisted, clear sight rolling as her second mirror fell—and it was Carmine stopping her. The balance of strength sat not automatically on his side; Nathaniel Carmine, as such, was slight of build, a cerebral vampire by habit, pasty from indoor life, winded by cigarettes.
Charmante in physical tenacity, his better. But who was he?
“William, trust me. You’ll be more help to her if you help me first.”
Veronica’s voice faded, William’s in reply a mumble. Back with them again, her love—she would say it—but herself departing. She was in the garden. At the table she turned in her hand a porcelain angel.
I am Charmante Demorest.
She tried the experiment, of declaring identity, and the waning circle superimposed no interloper’s vision, not of Charleton, not Godfrey, not He…or She. The Omniscient seemed not Dumain either. Charleton lay at the base of the wall, the bullet hole under his eye liver-hued. The eye like a windfall plum gone rotten, the other open.
How do you come to be here? I want to know, I want to tell. Charleton, I’ll be your voice.
I thought about Joseph.
Sometime after the riot, the inferno, the months the militia held the city, the gangs brought in to sweep the glass, break the burnt foundations, cart away barrows of brick…brick by the ton…broken cornice-work, roofing slates sliced down like cleavers…
Sometime after, I found myself again. I hadn’t known where I’d gone. I was with my grandfather…
Under charge of. I never saw him in my room, but I came to understand he’d been ordering me things, perhaps only bromide of potassium, possibly opiates. He’d had a woman in, reading to me, filling my head with bible language. I had barely believed in her. Purgatory, I thought…I’m in Purgatory. What else would Purgatory be but endless scripture?
I woke. I walked down the stairs to the garden. I walked up the stairs, to one of the turrets. I looked for my clinic, and saw only a bright field of labor under the sun. I learned…someone said…Leonce said…
That the state gave a contract, money enough to skim the cream. Prisoners couldn’t vote, so no one wanted them, but transients from the work camps could. Men rode out rounding them up, carried them down on cars…from Tennessee even, North Carolina.
No, I pass it by, those years when repairing the house, my quarters, my surgery…
When I had this to keep my mind busy.
I could strike up a conversation, I had people around me. I don’t tell you I hadn’t seen the shrinking, the shying in their eyes. I was never from that time of the riot welcomed, wanted. I was dreaded. The superstitious I caused to feel it, that death stalked alongside me; the very superstitious might catch at their crosses…or some still hung a little bag around their necks, a fetish.
Joseph, you see. When there’d been good in him yet, when he’d gone west wanting to make his life of value. Impossible he should value his life. Joseph’s father was my own father, and my grandfather; I was Carolee’s cousin and her uncle. You know all that…but call it my catechism. I repeat these things to remind myself of the debt I owe.
Mrs. Demorest, I hadn’t presumed I could purchase redemption, atone but for a fraction of Grandfather’s wickedness. Because I cared…nothing…for my health or reputation, I made it my work to go everywhere. At any hour of the day or night. If my sleep were interrupted, if I were duty-worn, I told myself those trials would hasten the hour, merely. I could not love, I could not marry, I could not rise in my profession. I was a taint, more so than tainted; any service I could perform was a blessing to my soul.
I charged no fee. I turned down no caller. I gave comfort as I could, to the drunkards, the addicted, the beaten women, the dying ones in childbirth. I would not have borne it easily if they’d called me saint, but this they did not. They felt a bit of shame in it; they knew they gave me their secrets. They knew they counted the dollars saved, and bought what could not have been afforded, for paying even the most charitable attendant. I suppose they knew I martyred myself. And that my grandfather kept me alive. So you see, there is no blame. It was the Devil giving his alms and afterwards extracting his price.
Therefore…my patients knew they were bargaining. They never spoke among themselves.
Then the war. Then the epidemic.
And I was ill, but I worked. St. Hubert hummed quietly for me. Charleton, old friend, here you’ve come to me again, telling lies.
Here is Charleton, weary of movement, a book on his lap. A medical text. He never reads, when he can at all, for pleasure. Carolee gives him novels. Of fiction, his cousin is a great reader. She subscribes to a monthly service, and of her discards tells Charleton (because…he knows it…she won’t have him returning her gifts in person): “Keep that.” His shelves have become a library, while he can bring himself to fill his hours with only the edifying, the excusable.
If he did not have a servant, he would not have a fire in the grate. But his grandfather has hired a valet, a watchful eye for Charleton. On Sundays, he attends Old Dumain, rather than church. Grandfather urges he keep up his strength, and questions him, autopsies the very tissue of his encounters with the public, each illness and injury he has treated that week.
“You’re lame, your left leg.”
“No. The muscles are weak somehow. The flu.”
“And do you see this aftereffect often? You are probably expert by now.”
Grandfather adds: “In your way.”
“Some cases seem to carry a disability, some harm to the nervous system.”
“That won’t do! Do you mean on the left side? In the leg, in particular? The ambulatory powers compromised, with a typically observable character? What do you do with the patients, then, when they begin to recover? Do you have them walk a straight line?” He smiles. The hunter’s smile. “I suppose you don’t bother testing.”
“I am not studying the flu. I am treating the flu.”
The war has ended, the island still a hospital camp. The flu, for the old year’s passing, has not much abated in its spread. But Charleton is at home now, another occasion of his grandfather’s ordering him carried off, directing his care from the turret apartment, the funnel of the spider’s web.
Charleton, for shouting his servant from the house…
Don’t you like taking in a show, now and then? Don’t you have a mother to visit?
Has won two hours’ freedom. Clyde will be back at ten.
He feels melancholy, burning Aunt Lil in pieces. He doesn’t disagree with her proscription…but believes in, more than Carolee, their being as cousins, friends. While he feels weak and dull, has to limit his patient hours, he entertains…or, this change in his life, illness, makes him entertain…
Even, a day or two lately, he has lain in bed, not rising to dress, breathing the smell of coffee and toast, telling himself things. Why be a Dumain? What’s the use of not severing ties with the old man? Would he care if I disappeared, left him with only his household staff to torment?
No. He doesn’t care if I don’t disappear.
Ships come into harbor. Ships want doctors. Countries on the other side of the world want…
Everything of the west, so they say. I am forty-two. I won’t be the father of a child. Why might I not marry?
Make a home…
(2020, Stephanie Foster)