The Mirrors (part seventeen)
The year of Esta’s birth, on an island in a southern river…
Born new asset to a family of wealthy bankers.
Here at the city’s fringe had been this wall. This wall on its little hump of earth, able with its niches to be scaled. But not meant to keep the inmates in, only to reassure the townsfolk…
That on that side sat stowed all the district’s horrors. On theirs lay peace and order.
William was not here. She had chivvied him far enough, perhaps. He had made up his mind, leaving her last night speaking of work, to be done with the house on Dumain, and with the company its tenant kept.
The trolley tracks, the railroad tracks, the waste field.
Houses taking up on both sides, a proper street thickening with storefronts—a jutting sign, Porter’s Lounge, strung with lit bulbs. Next door, dirty windows and a dead lamp, a stack of spineless books, two ragdolls arm-in-forlorn-arm.
Soaped on the glass, and always: Closed.
A residence hotel. A grocery.
A few better stores, better houses. All these things had survived the riot.
On the city-going side of Dumain had been postbellum growth. An era for these houses, then decay in fire and bedlam. Decay for all, when the city’s harbor traffic had fallen. Charmante tried to draw in a vision, charged by the electric air presaging the storm.
The year is 1859, the day…
The one before the fire. She, as witness, would stare up from some low place, see these niches high overhead. She would stand on Dumain land; the rich Dumains, rising in fortune as the Robacks declined…
Or not. The tidal bore comes up the river first. Then the floodwaters spread.
Each day she came to Rothesay’s, she saw through her bus window a knoll near Old Centre Street (the city, straddling its delta, too sprawling to really have a center). She saw the mansion…it was a sort of school, or institute. People spoke of it not often, and in that way of saying, when they did: “No call to be going there.”
It was a town house, not a plantation house, brick-faced, with toy-like turrets at the corners, awnings… She did now flash on a vision, sighting a thing she had never to her knowledge seen. A larger structure, architectural cousin to the Dumain house, the original, rightful dwelling-place of Old Devil Dumain—
It is 1859. I stand…in an orchard…
Something told her this was so. There is a hospital over the wall; its floors are being mopped. Sheets are being stripped from beds, lunches on trays hoisted by dumbwaiter. Eighty-three are doomed, in this place, to die tomorrow. There is a man whose grandfather…can that be right?…owned this land. He has built a house, where from a squat rise his descendants may look down…
His descendants may look down. She wondered.
She ought to blame this wondering, blame her own mind for interrupting itself, but she blamed William. The ladder whinged, the bucket sloshed…he had even begun to hum a tune, unconvincing. At least, that song was not his habit irritated her; she felt he hummed by way of projecting: “Don’t be afraid, it’s only me.”
And this artificiality between them…no longer new friends… Was it because William had seen her chairs and tables, the kind of drapes she hung on her windows, the kind of man she’d married?
He quit making noise.
She must get leave from Rothesay. Her shopping list, and Rothesay’s money. Of course, get William inside the house, so he would see, understand what was happening. But he might see only Rothesay and Carmine being themselves…
“You’ve lived on this street all your life.”
“Oh, that’s right. You’d said you lived on Main. There’s Pinckney, then 12th, then…”
She pointed, towards the rundown district she had mentally surveyed. She disliked her tone, sharpened for no reason he would know. But she did believe he had lied to her.
“Down that way. All right place for some to live. Not for everybody.”
We won’t overcome this, she thought. He sees what he sees in me.
She said: “William, you’ll help me out.”
“I been. I’ll go on.”
“You’ll come inside and look at something I want to show you.”
He took a step back, at this, his answer a swallowed, “Um.”
“Really. You won’t go up in the house?”
“Give me some picture I can decide on.”
She weighed reasons for his balking. Rothesay did not make classes among his servants, so far as Charmante had seen. She herself could bear up with seeing ghosts…even the cat could. And a thought more generous—it would rain in a minute, so why not have a cup of coffee in the kitchen? His shoes would do for the kitchen.
Or was it none of these things?
“Rothesay didn’t hire you. You said so. You said you’d been here…”
“Five or six years.”
Her smile was tight, but caught assuming too fast, his face with a saving humor lightened.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)