The Mirrors (part fifty-three)
And so for the sake of that wisdom, that had to be witnessed and passed on, Charmante’s eyes had seen the state of her father’s mortgaged house. There would be no money for the fixing up. Her mother’s cancer came, after the check for eight hundred dollars offered by a vulturine downtowner, after the moving of them, their salvage, into Esta’s house for good.
There was no school now for Charmante to attend. Her mother made lessons for her, and left a notebook with a plan mapped out, for the rest of the year she’d stopped living.
William thought the mirror world could tell only truths, show only things that had been. Hold out only that false hope, of learning a better lesson.
Then, of possible answers, Charmante had weighed:
One. Her mother knew. Daddy had written, and feeling ashamed…could she?…that he was a prisoner somewhere, Carrie had put his letters away. In Esta’s trunk? On Esta’s promise, ironclad. Or, she hadn’t felt ashamed, more bearable, but Daddy had asked her not to tell. Just then, at that raw time. He had said it himself, you could not make your case until the holders of power would hear it.
Two. Her mother hadn’t known. The letter existed, maybe dozens of them, but sat undelivered.
Three. The vision was false. True things could be, and could hew closely, one stranger’s story to another’s. A devil had showed her those words on paper, or the Guide had, for His unknowable purpose.
But if she were to bring it up with Esta, she must decide. Whether more of her father than her memories afforded mattered…whether she wouldn’t rather not. Her parents were not two adults with a marriage between them, they were Daddy and Mother. She had not spied on them, to know their private ways together.
Her choice was in the air, coming to Mrs. Turner’s.
Mrs. Turner’s father had been a government clerk, never any of the Sangtrys in slavery, no. Recommended for his post by a Colonel Denison, whose father he’d been valet to first. Gout took the old man, with the son off fighting. Mrs. Turner’s father managed household accounts for the widow, incapable in her grief…
Charmante waited for some natural pause, a chance of asking without eagerness, did you ever hear…? Or, did my mother ever speak to you?
Mrs. Turner had not married down, although it was said. Her husband’s people were no connection to that Turner. You remember…no, you young things sure don’t. Well, after the end of Reconstruction, when all that was supposed to get better got worse…
Now, then. I was a bride myself, eighteen years old.
Mr. Turner had a parlor piano store, but the finances got him. “He had a lot on the books. He kept just three models in the showroom. He always had to go around visiting, make sure the ones that quit paying hadn’t gone and sold what they didn’t have the right. Keep in with the neighbors, in case someone was fixing to leave town.”
But those the Turners owed money to, had themselves to chase for it. The Turners had moved south. They moved, and moved again. All her instruction, all she had gleaned watching her doctor, Mrs. Turner employed in setting up a place.
She called it a place; she meant a one-room clinic where, outside all rules, skirting paths closed to her, she had practiced as a physician. “I used a kerosene stove to boil water for sterilizing the instruments. I never did anything wrong or cheap.”
I haven’t done Mrs. Turner justice, Charmante thought. Not yet. “You’ll come out to our house one of these Sundays?”
“Yes I will. Yes I will.”
They parted, talking a little more in the alcove. But only insistence, Charmante keeping reminders up, would make them friends.
“How he used to tell me what a bright little girl he had! He was just sure you’d be a doctor yourself one day.”
The words seemed to call for something… The obvious reply, or Mrs. Turner’s asking it herself: What is it you do, Charmante?
But more, another friendly spate. “Dr. Bonheur would say, if you only look at history, forty years is not much time at all. And what progress, what a long way come! Forty more years, all the further. He didn’t listen to it when people complained…he’d say, you’re not seeing the picture. I remember he had those talks with poor Charleton.”
It was true. Her nephew-by-marriage had differed, too, with Esta.
“They’ll turn us back. You wait.”
“No, ma’am. Can’t be done. Oh, they might turn me back. They might hold another generation down. But altogether, they won’t turn us back.”
Charmante had forgotten that about her father.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)