The Mirrors (part forty-four)
I thought about Joseph.
Sometime after the riot, the inferno, the months the militia held the city, the gangs brought in to sweep the glass, to break the burnt foundations, cart away barrows of brick…
Brick by the ton. Broken cornice-work, roofing slates that had sliced down like cleavers; sometime after, I found myself again. I hadn’t known where I’d gone. I was with my grandfather.
Under charge of.
I never saw him in my room, but I came to understand he’d been ordering me things, perhaps only bromide of potassium. Or opiates. He had a woman in, reading to me, filling my head with bible language. I barely believed in her. Purgatory, I thought…I’m in Purgatory. What else would Purgatory be but endless scripture?
I woke. I walked down the stairs to the garden. I walked up the stairs, to the turret. I looked for my clinic, and saw only a bright field of labor under the sun. I learned…someone said…
Leonce said. That the legislature had voted a contract, money enough to skim the cream. Men rode out rounding up transients from the camps, carried them down on cars…from Tennessee even, from North Carolina.
No, I pass it by, those years when repairing the house, my quarters, my surgery…
When I had this to keep my mind busy.
I could strike up a conversation, I had people around me. I don’t tell you I hadn’t seen the shrinking, the shying in their eyes. I was never from the time of the riot welcomed. I was dreaded. The superstitious, I caused to feel it, that death stalked alongside me. The very superstitious might catch at their crosses…or some still hung a little bag around their necks, a fetish.
Joseph, you see. When there’d been good in him yet; when he’d gone west wanting to make his life of value. Impossible he should value his life. Joseph’s father was my own father, and my grandfather. I was Carolee’s cousin and her uncle. You know all that…but call it my catechism. I repeat these things to remind myself of the debt I owe.
Mrs. Demorest, I hadn’t presumed I could purchase redemption, atone for but a fraction of my grandfather’s wickedness. Because I cared…nothing…for my health or reputation, I made it my work to go everywhere, at any hour, day or night. If my sleep were interrupted, if I were duty-worn, I told myself those trials would hasten the end, merely. I could not love, I could not marry, I could not rise in my profession. I was a taint, more than tainted; any service I could perform was a blessing to my soul.
I charged no fee. I turned down no caller. I gave comfort as I could, to the drunkards, the addicts, the beaten women, the dying ones in childbirth. I would not have borne it easily if they’d called me saint, but this they did not. They felt a shame in it, giving me their secrets. Knowing they counted the dollars saved, and bought what could not have been afforded, for paying the most charitable attendant. I suppose they knew I martyred myself, and that my grandfather kept me alive.
So you see, there is no blame. It was the Devil giving alms and afterwards extracting his price.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)