The Mirrors (part twenty-nine)
The dead were not in the fog. Charmante found herself locking eyes with the blue-jowled man, ardent behind the window of a sinister little shed, its blood-colored brick clarifying to visibility.
“You’re the daughter of a man I knew. That counts…”
His mouth did something, flickering. The smile looked tragic and wistful, the face like biscuit dough peeling from a death’s-head. It looked again sarcastic, loathing of the whole and healthy. “Counts as an introduction, Mrs. Demorest. You have questions, don’t you, for your father? You would like to see him. You would like to know if your mother is at peace, here with him.”
Only movement at the corner of her eye checked the step she’d been about to take. William, not keeping his place, walked at speed…he was slipping off among the trees.
Charmante calculated past her first impulse, to call William’s name. The boy in the mirror…he would have grown into a good-hearted man. They were not evil, these ghosts. Or these distant selves, capable of drawing life from the living.
“Harold!” she called. “You don’t want to do this!”
Why should any of them, not bitter like Godfrey, wish to seduce on Dumain’s behalf? William put out a hand as though to catch something. The door of the house flung open.
“I apologize.” Carolee hurried down, arms full with two lanterns and a cat. “They’re strong tonight. That, I think, is because there are too many of us. I’ve rowed out before with only Veronica. Marian stayed with the car. It seemed manageable, that time. I won’t say the circle…”
She caught her breath.
Veronica finished. “Wasn’t alarming in its way. Let me.” This time she meant, take the cat.
Marian in practicality placed one lantern on the ground, knelt, and lighted it. “That’s better. I had a hunch they’d back off a little.”
“Key it down. We’ll hold the other aside, in case this one doesn’t last us across.”
“Marian,” Charmante said. “Did you see them?”
“Oh, they don’t mean anything to me. I don’t have anyone dead. Not my mother and father, not my sister. And Bill looked all right last time I saw him.”
The dark around the lantern was pitch. But lifting her eyes, Charmante could see a twilight sky over the river, and orange…an unpromising sunset that would cloud ahead of dying.
William said: “What about out here, ma’am…? You never see the sheriff come along after dark, drive that road, other side? Be out rowing with a lantern…I don’t see that looking like any good.”
Carolee said, oblique: “I will always answer truthfully any question I’m asked. But also, I have a friend who knows when I come out to the house, and the sheriff won’t quibble with him.”
They reached the trees, filed one by one down the path. Charmante felt a lonely tug at her heart, growing acute, and so strong she mistrusted it.
Come back…you’re not leaving. I am still waiting.
My girl. Please don’t go.
Veronica said: “William, you’re in the lead. Take us to the boat where you put it.”
William moved heavy of breath, expending an ache Charmante knew, in the labor of righting the boat, nudging it into the water among the floating wreckage, wading in himself, at last—there seemed no other way.
She and Marian caught him by the arms, and William dragged himself aboard. Brasher’s craft weighed low once more, striking against the current…a strange, wrenching exercise, crossing water under a night sky.
Carolee spoke then, the cat’s purr audible, her stroking of him the faintest sibilance.
“Let me answer you, Charmante. Let me say what my cousin doesn’t know. The little porcelain angel, where did it come from? Where did it? We had a music box…I ought to say my mother had. The type with a cache for trinkets. Did I steal a treasure from her? She and I never had that conversation. I’m not sparing myself. I want to say I thought Charleton was too homely, too dull. But I couldn’t have hated him for those things. Remember Godfrey was alive, trying in fits to kill himself…trying to kill my mother. Kill her, I mean, by killing everything she loved. He started a fire in his bedroom. He poisoned the fish, pouring kerosene in their tank. And he arranged mirrors. I don’t think he knew…how to draw spirits, I suppose… I was jaded to it, then, not afraid. I just found God embarrassing, mad. Dangerous, in that he would go to the city and the police take him for some obscenity.” She laughed. “The Robacks were people of reputation. And so we had to acknowledge Godfrey, pay for him. And you see, Charleton had been my ally. He’d become useless, mooning over me, making a tragedy of his chaste love. I didn’t care for love, any sort. I wanted my friend to protect me. For a hateful…desperate, maybe…will to do mischief, I told him the angel was found in the ashes of the old hospital. That it was a talisman, or pledge, against the Dumain family’s guilt, to be passed to each generation until we’d redeemed ourselves…a sorority girl’s story. I didn’t know my cousin well enough. That yarn, which I promise I made up on the spot, seized his imagination. He wanted to take it from me, and I said, ‘Why, this is yours by right.’ I said that. And then I said, ‘Be careful’.”
William’s labor drowned all other sound. He grunted with the effort of one oar and a contrary flow of water, a concentration that could not afford being broken. The women sat poised, swallowing their breaths. Charmante knew the mirrors signaled; she felt them probe the nape of her neck. If she looked, she must shift from this crouch, and the life-preserving balance would be harmed, the current win.
They came free, a sudden glide. The waters lapped the shore twenty feet away. But William stopped pushing himself only when the bottom scraped among cypress roots. Veronica lurched with the lantern; the swing snuffed its flame. For minutes, they saw nothing. They heard nothing whatever human. The river, spreading to earth here, waved them into a tighter tangle.
Marian struck a match, and lit the second lantern. “There’s a log that’s still got bark on it, and see there, it goes up onto dry land. I don’t expect any better answer, Miss Veronica. We’ll have to tie up the boat best we can.”
“Poor Brasher. But it was us broke faith…so the Institute will buy him a new boat, if we ever find him.”
“I about done in my hands,” William said, to Charmante.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.” And then she said, “Thank you, William.”
“Yes, for Heaven’s sake, what a hero! We’ll think of something to make it up to you. Marian?”
Veronica was on the log-bridge. Marian sighed and handed up the light.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)