The Mirrors (part six)
Nothing that manifests…nothing that can be…
(She was bearing this in mind, in church, where faith was apt.)
…is not created for the good. You dispute this. You say that there is evil in the world, and that you have smelled the malignant breath of it. But your own small good, as you know, scarcely signifies in the face of God’s great good; nor, for you see matters from down here, rather than up there, should you flatter yourself you see them clearly…
The good Charmante hoped for was the kind you kept, not asked sent your way. But she appreciated she had disturbed her own peace.
And taken money for it, too. She could have said no to Rothesay.
Dumain stirred. Charmante, sitting in the House of God, was not ashamed to think it. She believed it. But He has armed you against spirits, if spirits are of the devil. And if they serve some purpose of His own, they are not evil, only to human eyes too strange—
You are asked to believe in His purpose, not insist on understanding it.
When Pastor Ratliff said: “Let us pray”, Charmante inside herself, said: “Father, let me be the help I can.”
She had a visit to pay her aunt, and it was Sunday, a day she had no duties at Dumain’s (she’d come to think of the house this way). Esta was not a Bonheur; she stood by her old church, and Charmante didn’t know what time her aunt might be gone or home.
The little row, so like those disreputable ones along the river, except these houses were clean and painted, also was under the eye of neighbors. Esta’s grand-niece was one of theirs, and Charmante’s aunt didn’t lock her door.
“Hey there, ma’am!”
She lifted the pan, inviting, her plan to entice Mrs. Parkins inside…because, the Lord’s Day notwithstanding, she meant to rifle her aunt’s things, and it was better done before a witness. “Yellow cake.”
“She ain’t come back yet.”
The rising from her swing was slow; Mrs. Parkins had a stick and a collie dog, and gained her feet using both. Charmante left the door wide, carried her cake to the kitchen. “Ma’am, do you know where Esta might keep any old newspapers?”
“Hmm, now, I don’t think she does. Her and me use them in the garden, keep weeds off.”
“Now…” Charmante echoed, lifting the pot from the burner.
They had electricity along this way, a pole with a heavy tangle of wire at Esta’s corner, the menace of it looping low over her side patch. But Charmante’s aunt didn’t run an electric range…power here browned out daily. Hot plates were a blessing, coffee and eggs, a chicken fry, without the fuss of coaling the stove.
“Ma’am, I’ve heard Esta talk about the Kruikshanks that she worked for. But going back to the time before my mother and I came… Did you ever hear Esta say a name, who she worked for those days?”
Mrs. Parkins fell into a chair, her collie onto its side against her leg.
Running water in Esta’s house was a less easy thing, and Esta filled her sink, mornings, from the backyard pump—to rinse, to cook with, to drink. Charmante scooped water into the pot, ground some beans into the percolator, and still Mrs. Parkins sat placid.
This bull needed taken by the horns. “Not Dumain?”
“Now why you say Dumain?”
“Oh, I’ve probably got it wrong.”
“It wasn’t Dumain owned her old place. I peg it by that hospital burned down, year or two before the war. Well, I’m not straight on that.”
“The cholera hospital? Founded by the Dumain family, built with their money?”
“I don’t mean that war over there.”
“What did people used to figure? When you were a girl, or did they never talk about the one awful thing, with so much coming after?”
“How the fire got started, is what you mean?”
“Well, you know the one took the whole block was from the riot.”
This was how Mrs. Parkins remembered, a fragment calling to mind another, ordered outside chronology.
“And then, what did they say about the hospital?”
“All the beds was on a ward in a long row. All them linens on the beds, see. The folks they had at the back could’never got out…the fire just burned up in front the door.”
“Only an accident?”
Mrs. Parkins, trying to picture a thing that had happened the year she was born, sat silent. A forbidden horror, a whispered secret among the youngsters, a cautionary tale from a grown-up.
“They said they was stacked like kindling wood under the windows. That’s what I always recollect.”
He had not lived through those times, that even Esta and Mrs. Parkins knew only by legend. Today, Charmante sat on the morning bus nesting against her hip a paper sack.
In aught-one, she had been twelve, Mr. Wright a year or two older. He had, it was possible, taken part in the riot, a boy of thirteen or fourteen. So many that age had.
No one said it. Everyone spoke of things as having happened, the militia coming, the sandbagged barricades, Gatling guns mounted, men on horseback charging crowds, sabres swinging. Those not burned out shuttering themselves indoors…
Not safe enough, the doors shattered by axe-heads, the men dragged out, vanishing after.
Even women shot in the street for nothing, for being there.
And no one now said, “I was there.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)