The Mirrors (part thirty-six)
She was twenty years old. Esta’s birthday was not remarked in the household.
She had been married two years to Charles, not a choice. She hadn’t at eighteen considered love, whether love were possible, and if so, who? Her brother, nine years her elder, had been better placed to walk free of Roback land. He was gone. Gone alone to the city, patching along for yourself…this, to a girl, was cowing. A thing he didn’t know, urging her. Making it a fault of her pride.
She thought Ma’am wouldn’t like her going. Would, in that way of hers, big up those despairing eyes, flutter those hands, say, “If you choose,” on a great sigh. Aunt Livie, a very old servant, whose husband had been Gustus…names Esta’s brother made her believe were for the lowest and the blackest…
Gustus had really come from Africa, dear old man…
Livie told her, you can’t go just because you think you can.
Esta didn’t exactly think it. Ma’am had wanted her to marry Charles. She had done this; she saw Livie’s point. What did it mean to say, I’d rather not? It meant you thought you were wanted someplace.
She was out in the kitchen, seeing if there was a little fat and flour to bake a cake for herself. A wildcat shriek came from the riverside. Or the noise had seemed a panther. Livie snatched her stick and pushed to her feet.
“Lord Amighty! Charles get his shotgun!”
But no bang was heard. Quiet, then keening…a caterwaul, but words to it, human. She and Livie had to wash and lay out the body. This was not so awful—Polly had been fresh. Livie clucked and moaned. Esta patted the hair with a linen towel.
“Auntie, should I get some rosewater to rinse it out?”
“Well, child, go on.”
Esta and Livie baked a number of things through the rest of that week. At first Godfrey had rested frozen on his bed, eyes drilling the ceiling, eerie little noises coming from his chest. Esta kept the door standing open when she brought up the tray.
On another day, he ate in a ravenous way that she found obscene.
Four days after death, Polly lay well buried in the Roback plot. Old Devil had gone back…to where, Esta had no picture. She knew almost nothing of Polly’s father, who had summoned his daughters when he wanted a visit.
“Charles, what’d you see when you went down there?”
She was expecting, so Charles said to her, “You best not know. Won’t do you no good.”
No, if this little one had to be born with a spirit in him or her, no mother would wish, for nosiness, to have brought that on. Esta held her tongue.
For a minute. “But that child, sugar, what ails him?”
He shook his head. She loved Charles a little for the commiseration in his eyes. He had been very willing for Mr. Roback, at any hour getting himself up for a chore; becoming, since the family had gone down…so many on the island slipped away, not asking leave…the man who did everything, and far too much.
Esta had waited to see him hate them.
“Not enough whippin,” he said.
A month after the death, and Mr. Roback was still in town at his hotel, seeing after his ruined bank. This was the job he’d been given by the receivers. From ’75 when Roback’s closed, to now, and the end of his married life, he had been off the island almost always. He was not there to whip Godfrey, not there to see his son recovered…
Not there to visit him at all.
Godfrey was in Livie’s care. Led that day to a rocker on the veranda, bundled tight in a quilt, given a pitcher of strong tea, at once he had kicked the table to the paving, the pitcher and glass left shattered. Esta was hauling her bucket and mop, duster and broom, upstairs in one swoop, however much Charles would fret if he saw her climb two flights without the handrail. She was angry. Livie called this baby anger, said not to mind, but tuck a little nosegay in the bodice of her dress.
But Esta saw them bereft on this island like lunatics taken over the asylum. No one blamed poor widowed Roback, so much tragedy in the family…
Esta blamed him. He had burdened Livie as though her age somehow put her in charge. More than once Godfrey had knocked her to the floor. He would kill her. Esta dropped her cleaning things, made to strip the stinking bed, decided the shutters ought to be thrown well open—not just here, but all along the hall, moving what air could be moved.
She shoved through the big closet into Polly’s room. Shoved, because a chest blocked the way. Something fell chiming to the carpet, to Esta’s relief, only a brass bell. She doubted a living soul knew what bric-à-brac belonged to the house…
Then, if she broke a thing, so be it.
She walked the door wider, eased her belly around…marveled suddenly. It came to her Polly had arranged this, had wanted warning if her son tried to enter her room. Maybe she had locked the other door.
Across from the bed sat a long bureau, its heavy mirror hung on wire. Esta heard a splash of water, an inch, inch, as though the mirror strained at its mooring. She saw Polly.
“You are the wise one. Please do condemn us all, that’s only right. Don’t let that child be born on the Ile St-Hubert, my poor Esta. But let me tell you what I must. If this mirror leaves its place, return it. On no account break one. On no account let the circle be. Take each and carry it to its home.”
The Mirrors (part thirty-seven)
(2020, Stephanie Foster)