The Mirrors (part twenty-one)
Charmante began to find earth under her feet. Charleton was a moving picture, his sufferings waves of reaction. Godfrey forced the watcher into himself, a pillbox view from a filthy, degraded trench…one that held some fascination…
And invited a terrible pity. But this hold, too, faltered away.
She was in the garden. Charleton’s feeble grip yielded to Godfrey’s, his will to live, in defiance of all mischance, all misery. Godfrey shoved at his cousin, Charleton staggered, and both figures flashed through her living self…
The thunderclap as before, boom, and boom.
But she turned unharmed, a ghost unpresent to the men. They stood in a low-voiced, tooth-gritted argument. At the wall, where the dandelions bloomed. Godfrey, in disgust, wanted Charleton to take back the gun. He prodded his cousin’s belly; he struck him in the face. He tried to, at last, frantic, press it into Charleton’s hand.
Charleton with both hands crushed Godfrey’s and drew the fingers up, inch upon inch…his strength suddenly jacked, the passion of suicide in it. Charmante could not hear the shot. But Charleton fell, and the gun fell, landing where the dead hand slackened. This time she stepped away, and Godfrey’s charge indoors came at closest view…
But soon he was gone to the surgery below.
The theft played like music, cinematic, in notes of metal and glass. The story was ending, and its Guide moved her to what must now be shown. Godfrey driven by a jealous whim to pry, to the top of the house. Bottles buttoned inside his shirt, his music with him, one, two, three flights. Charleton’s bedroom littered with books and papers, most on the floor around his chair. A discarded sweater and a pair of slippers. Heavy dust, garden dirt on the rug. Clyde, prohibited…easy for Godfrey to read this drama…from entering, from touching, has foisted on Dr. Dumain a carpet sweeper. It lies with its long handle prone, stretched flat like the body below.
That Clyde will have to discover.
Godfrey goes to the firescreen. Something foul has been burnt on Charleton’s private hearth. Or…he finds with a sniff…chemical, a thing of cloth and gilded sticks of wood. Oil and varnish. Lil. This is far madder than he’d have credited his cousin…
Smiling, he scoots back the screen, draws out a scrap.
But the eye animates. She is his mother, Polly.
In panic he falls back, trips, flings the bit of canvas. He gathers the bottles that have spilled from his shirt, flies, rakes back the front door, runs to his grandfather’s house. He never looks to see the consequence, the smolder in a stack of paper. The back door at 1912 Dumain, Godfrey has locked, done by habit, a thief buying time.
One vision more.
A garden, that of the institute. She might this time have stood peering through the devil’s iron gate, nameless as any nightcrawler, but not daring this. To put a foot on his property. To sleep there, sheltered under one of his spirea bushes. She saw Godfrey lurch to the coping, in terrible pain. His running all this distance had torn his lungs…his clutching looked to Charmante like a declining agony, an end. The breathing sounded sieved in blood.
But Godfrey wanted the drugs. The light at the center shone a little stronger.
She saw him watched. Her first direct sight of Dumain’s face. Coming white from shadow, it rested victorious. Intent…
Weathered, where all quizzical furrowing, all mockery…
All decisions taken…to not rescue, not excuse, not forgive, not alter a punishment for the pathos of the one punished, not withhold condemnation for tears or pleading, for illness, for injury inflicted by his own hand, had drawn their history. Vital, and ageless, for an intelligence so old.
He looked at her as though she stood visible—and his speaking of her name was like a physical touch, grotesque. Then he stepped closer to his grandson, and landed a blow between the shoulder blades.
A physical touch. But this was poignant, if anything.
If only her fingers mashed against Nat’s could communicate her friendship towards him, that she loved him, and fought him for his own salvation. She saw the circle broken to just this mirror; William, in her peripheral vision, even now pulled a floor-length dressing glass…
To rest near the wall, the last arc split, the two reflecting nothing of each other.
He spun and caught Carmine around the waist. Carmine fell slack as a ragdoll, Charmante taken off guard. The mirror struck the floor and splintered.
Veronica rushed in, knelt by Carmine and unbuttoned his collar…but this time, he seemed himself at once. He stood. Charmante edged to take William’s hand.
“You’re all right…everyone’s all right?” William asked.
She thought suddenly of her taffeta church dress. Sweating and laboring…well, here they’d come to wrestle the devil in their finest…why not?
It made her laugh. Then Carmine laughed.
He winked at Veronica.
A princess, to deliver her swan-changed brothers, must for six years keep mute, never to speak or laugh. She sews shirts from aster flowers. When the curse ends, one shirt lacks a sleeve, and so one brother is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm. Alike, Charmante (at least, this tale from childhood had come to mind), for failing to shepherd one mirror to its safe home, saw Carmine part healed, part possessed.
Veronica thought not by Leonce. “No. Wouldn’t I know? Maybe Rothesay…young Rothesay went off adventuring abroad. He may have had some charm. Had to have, the number he did on Nat’s mother.”
Holding silent and hearing only birds in the camellia trees, themselves panting like sprinters…that quieting…and no hum rising to prominence…
No hum at all. William said, “I’ll go see about Rothesay. But I don’t know.”
“What our story needs to be,” Charmante finished for him.
“Well, Miss Dumain. I think we agree I’m not strong on my feet, after yesterday, and all. The hallway was dark, and I came out after my…employer. I had a dizzy spell, I think.”
“You fell against him.”
The mantel clock chimed. “How can it be two!”
“Because that one’s not set right. By my watch only about five til. Really, Charmante. Mirror time is mirror time. We’ve been here twenty minutes. That’s why,” Veronica drew her to the stairs, “our story’s good. William!”
“I can’t wake him up, but he’s living.”
“Then go get a pillow. Charmante, grab a coverlet. Let’s look like we’ve done our best. I’ll call for an ambulance. Better if I do.”
And because she and William were the help; because William did not enter the house proper, but on this exceptional day, and Charmante never bothered the men at their work…
The only information worthwhile to the ambulance men, to the doctor and the hospital staff, was given by Veronica and Carmine. Carmine had got up an act by that time, frailty and confusion, self-rebuke, masterfully done. Charmante almost mourned for him. She and William, though, had got up an act of their own…a little slow and having to think a minute…
For this, she felt almost ashamed. Rothesay, sixty hours after his fall, died, with no police suspicions. An accident.
But by the will of a grandson. Old Dumain the hated one…Rothesay not of that world, not able to be seen. No law could account for such things.
When they were newlyweds, after a week of William settling into Charmante’s house (she’d put Clell in the closet when they first began to court), Albert drove them into town to visit Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner, being down with the hay fever, hadn’t gone to the church.
“More down on her dignity,” Jane said. “She’d never go out and make a spectacle of herself, not for anything. But best if you do see her, where you can have a private talk.”
What was private, now, with family, where before she’d had only Esta?
But, of course, Mrs. Parkins, Mr. Meeker…they all looked out for her. Private was the way her new sister saw Charmante. Maybe she had grown this way, maybe sensed so many secrets that concerned her, but were kept by others.
The keepers were the dead. She could not have guessed at twenty, at thirty-five, a year ago…that they moved on their own side, to bring truth to hearts empty for the lack of it.
Twelve years old, a schoolgirl. Aware, but barely, of differences—that she and her parents lived in the right place, that there were lower places, but that her father’s status meant this—
A uniform, teachers whose religion was not theirs. For mission, for service, they taught colored daughters. They told her and the other girls: “You are the best of your generation. You will make your mark, and by that foothold gained, you will lead the generations to come.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)