The Mirrors (part sixteen)
She turned her back, took up her spoon and bent over the stovetop. Because there was cocoa and sugar in the house, because Carmine might struggle back for his favorite, she had milk on, simmering for pudding.
“Over yonder…” The voice was Leonce’s. A finger touched her shoulder.
A living man’s…she must not start.
“Have you ever looked out that way, out on that empty field? Where the old cholera hospital stood? Burnt to the ground…both of em burnt to the ground, old grave robber’s hospital, old grave robber’s clinic.” Leonce laughed. “They raised a tent and laid out the corpses.”
“Yes. I know.”
She was picturing a scene from her mother’s story.
Her bed had been a chair and footstool pushed together, her covers a folded comforter, a makeshift she’d been still small enough, at twelve, to fit. She lay rigid, trying to be deaf for her mother’s sake. Esta had one bedroom, one bed, where the adults slept.
She heard Esta get to her feet, rummage for a wrapper, pad the floor, murmuring, “Hold on”, in answer to a tap on the sash.
“Esta, come out.”
Charmante raised herself, on her knees reached the wall where their voices came through the open window.
“You been gone a while,” Esta said.
The light of a match shot up orange. Cigarette smoke floated indoors.
“You mean, was he there? No. I don’t expect it. I didn’t…but I went down the rows looking. Esta, that awful old man!”
“Was he like what I told you that once?”
“They were all under sheets. He had another man to lift them. They were feuding some way, those two. And I was about furious…carry on like that, when you ought… I grieve. Don’t I grieve? But it makes me think of the card game, you know? After a while, that doctor would have it memorized, just which body was where. He could pick what he had in mind to make you look at. And some…you would never be able to say who they were. It’d be by the clothes, I guess.”
“You’re not crying though.”
“I don’t think I will. I don’t think I can. Esta, that old man just liked watching.”
“Oh, he did.”
Charmante found both men had lapsed, trancelike, into a swaying on their feet, empty in the eyes. As though their being there depended on her attention.
Leonce came back.
Or the eyes blinked, the posture straightened. “The work had to go on. I never felt that, for myself, there was anything else. Why mourn a heap of masonry? Why mourn money, kept from you? I did hate him. No, fathomlessly, I hated him. I felt Grandfather had somehow…what is that biblical phrase…? Compassed me about with evil. When I was newborn and could do nothing. My father had always wanted me away at school, he hadn’t liked the sight of me. I forgive, though, I understand. I’d thought, seeing it all in ruins, and the suffering…
“And despising him so much for having… Oh,” this one finished, after a moment, “not contempt. Something worse. To hold people in contempt for suffering is to grant them humanity, at least. To find suffering an interesting study! I did take up with Leonce. I wished for him to have his birthright. I thought all that had been the cause…there are causes, Mrs. Demorest. I knew, I could know this without needing to have witnessed… I think they had left Joseph dead before the fire got in, Leonce and Godfrey. It’s odd how vividly I picture the body, facedown and horrid, and then the front, when I turned him… The flames had only licked him over.”
The voice was less obviously southern. He was a mournful creature; he hadn’t, unfolding these thoughts, told her much about Leonce’s identity.
Charmante eased into presuming on this acquaintance. Charleton spoke and did not speak to her; he called her by name, but all along—those shivers when the house had felt too empty—he might have done, with no vehicle to make himself heard. Poor weak Carmine.
Rothesay’s eyes, telegraphically aware…
Rothesay, cattycorner to where they stood, was making her skin crawl. As though you had gone to a wake, the body dressed and laid out…and you, turning to speak to a mourner, glanced back to see—
A moving eyeball under a half-raised lid. She said, “Charleton. She wrote you an apology. Carolee had given you some yarn…some story about the angel, I think.”
“Now, one time I went out to the island to visit my kin. They all took me for a fetch and carry boy, shown up to move em off.” A long chuckle. “One time I said to Godfrey, you let the old man prepare those needles. You don’t mind that, do you, God? Well, I was curious, ma’am. My brother’ll scorn me for saying so, but…the sight of a man, living, crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done… They do call em fiends, don’t they? I snatched that angel away from him, and snapped off a wing.”
Leonce, with his odd charm, gave another friendly chuckle.
“You never saw the like! I said, God, I could crush this little thing in my hand right now. Would you like that? I’ll do it. So he gets himself up off the floor…all in a state, ma’am, dusty, clothes hanging off like a sack, all weeping and bawling. Then I see him hunting…and I kick him down again. I say, God, you are never gonna kill me. Why don’t I just go slip it in the wall for you? Get hold that old devil when he comes down and throttle him! Now, Miss Carolee never known me before. I went right up to her and said, I could tell a story you never heard, ma’am. I can tell a lot of stories.”
“Crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done.”
“Now old devil, I don’t think so.”
The exchange ended the visit. Leonce walked Carmine from the kitchen; Charmante heard feet spring up the staircase.
Rothesay woke in full, to smile at her. “I think you are scorching the milk, Mrs. Demorest. I’ll blame myself for that…and apologize. Carmine and I ought to keep well out of your kitchen before lunchtime.”
She felt exhausted, from holding back the impulse to run outdoors, to shout for William. She wanted no more to do with Rothesay, but said anyway, “Aren’t you worried about Mr. Carmine? Wouldn’t you like to send him home?”
“Mrs. Demorest, it is what I have in mind.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)