Thursday, July 30, 2009

No Envy, No Fear (II)

Chapter II:

      After a few hours of sleep, I'm pulled magnetically back to the desk and my softly humming computer.
      I left off at my sixteenth year, and sixteen has always, I think, been a momentous age for girls, no matter what the century. On a sunny afternoon in Paris, my classmates and I were girls eager for the park. We'd been patient with our lessons, and had danced and sang in preparation for a musical evening we would host at the end of the week, but we craved the attention of passerby as only teenage girls do. So we collected our parasols and bonnets and gloves and any number of such items, thundering up and down the stairs of the old manor like a herd of unruly elephants. As we were almost ready to step out the door, Madam appeared at the top of the stairs, not to reprimand us as we all feared with a catch of our breaths, but rather to hand deliver me a note. I opened it carelessly, ignorant and disinterested in why she might have seemed so serious. My head was filled with hopes for the beautiful day, hopes, of course, that were quickly dashed away. I let out a small cry at the news in the letter, startling the other girls in the hall and bringing their silent eyes down on me.
      As Madam began to instruct me on how I must pack, Anne interrupted to demand what the news could possibly be. The note, barely a page long, contained a frantic message from my mother informing me that my father had been struck suddenly and mysteriously ill. It was so serious that they feared he would die soon, and so I was to make haste home. Without answering Anne, or even so much as acknowledging Madam or my classmates, I ran upstairs to my room. I planned to pack, but threw myself unto my bed instead, and that's where Anne found me crying a few minutes later.
      Hesitantly, she drew the details out of me, and once she had, she helped me begin to fold dresses into a traveling trunk. I continued to pack while Anne joined the rest of the school at dinner, and during the meal, Anne begged our headmistress to let her join me on my trip back home, but the request was firmly rebuked. My mother had written Madam as well, and it was clear that the sickness might be contagious. I didn't realize as I left Madam's school that no one expected ever to see me again, and that Anne cried in the doorway more for herself than even for me as my things were loaded into the carriage and I rode north out of Paris. I waved my handkerchief in farewell and, though there was a boulder slowly growing in my throat, no tears came.
      It was raining when the carriage pulled up to the house six days later, and I jumped out and ran up the steps without waiting for anyone to help me. It wasn’t that I had been close to my father, that I felt a particular need to rush to his bedside for his dying words, but the closer I got to home – the more the landscape became familiar – the more I felt a sense of urgency. And strangely, the closer I got, the slower everything else seemed to move. I felt near to losing my mind, and stopped myself more than once from demanding of the coachman whether he couldn’t please, for the love of God, move any faster.
      That was why I ran up the steps, all the way up to the second floor where the bedrooms were, and stopped in the middle of the hall suddenly.
      I hadn’t seen a single other carriage coming into town. I hadn’t seen a single other person. Even the house was silent at that moment, and it was eerie. It was frightening. “Mama?” I called out.
      She appeared in the doorway in an old house dress that on most days she surely would not have been caught dead in. Her face was pale, and drawn, and she looked as though she hadn’t slept in weeks.
      “Your father’s dead,” she said.
      So much for those dying words. I could never have arrived in time, it seemed, no matter how I rushed.
      “Where are Marguerite and Elisabeth?”
      “In their room, in bed, and Charlotte’s in your room. You should go back to school.”
      “Charlotte’s here?” I asked, my spirit lifting slightly.
      “She arrived last week, but she shouldn’t have come.” My mother braced herself against the doorframe. “She caught the illness, too. I never should have written and asked you to come either. It’s too much and too many. Go, before it’s too late.”
      “Mother, are you ill, too?” I took a step forward to look at her more closely in the fading daylight coming through her bedroom windows.
      “Ill, my child? We’re all dying. You must leave.” She turned her face away from me, no doubt wanting to keep me from seeing how translucent her skin had become, and how deep the circles were around her eyes, as though she was melting away.
      “When was the last time you slept?”
      “There’s no sleep in this sickness,” was all she said before a cry came from Eduard in the room behind her, and she turned for go to him. “Tell the coachman not to stop. Go back to Paris as soon as you can. Go to M Durant –he’ll take care of you.”
      “No, Mother, I won’t leave you,” I said, again stepping forward.
      “Go with God. Only the Devil is here,” she whispered, closing the door on me as she did, as if she could make me leave merely by not looking at me any longer.
      I went down the hall in the other direction to my sisters’ rooms. There was still so much silence in the house, and I realized that I didn’t even know how long my father had been dead, nor where they had buried him. My parents had talked about starting a family plot on the property, but it was entirely possible that he was buried in the churchyard with the rest of his Lambrecht relatives.
      I turned the knob of my sisters’ room without knocking –I had never knocked. The white light coming from the gray sky gave the room a strange glow. The curtains were drawn back and even the window was open, letting in a cold breeze. The room felt like death, and my sisters lay in bed, propped up by pillows, looking barely more alive than my mother.
      “What are you doing here?” Marguerite managed to ask, her hand reaching out to me, her index finger pointing. “Get out – you shouldn’t have come.”
      I took off my bonnet and threw it on the chair near the door, coming forward to take my sister’s hand, though she withdrew it in protest.
      “No, you’ll make yourself just as ill.”
      “Marguerite, how did this happen?” I asked, ignoring her warning just as I had my mother’s.
      She shook her head, tears coming to her eyes and covering them like a thin glass, though no drops actually spilled out. “I don’t know. No one knows.”
      “How can I make you better?” I asked, rubbing her freezing hand and bare arm.
      “There’s nothing you can do. It’s with God now.”
      That word again: God. We had never been a religious family, although we had all the semblances of one for the most part, as one did in those times. To hear both my mother and my sister invoke that word though worried me.
      “Surely that’s not true,” I argued, standing up and moving toward the window. “We ought to close this window for starters. And call a doctor.”
      “There’s no doctor that will come,” Elisabeth said, her voice small in the large room. I looked over my shoulder to see her sink lower against her pillows.
      “What’s that supposed to mean?”
      “Even the doctor is ill,” Marguerite explained. “There’s no one to come, and it’s better that way. You need to leave. Get as far away from this as you can.”
      I stood almost in the middle of the room. “As if I’d leave my sisters! And Mama must be in a state since father’s death. I can’t leave you.”
      They stared at me with sad eyes. Pitying eyes.
      “Please…” Marguerite began, but I stopped her words with my uplifted hand.
      “I’m going to see Charlotte, and then I’ll see Cook about dinner. A warm soup, I think, will do everyone well. I don’t care if I have to carry it up the stairs myself. Now you two rest…”
      I closed the door behind me, leaning against it quietly and closing my eyes for a second. They had looked awful, and I worried what I would find in my own bedroom where Charlotte was supposed to be staying. It took only a few steps to get to that door, and when I opened it, I saw a thin figure laying on its side under the linen sheet, all of the other blankets pushed away.
      I thought she might be sleeping, but she almost looked not to be breathing, so I stole forward to check. Coming around the corner of the bed, I looked into her wakeful face, as pale and drawn and hollow as the rest.
      “Charlotte!” I gasped.
      She opened her mouth and then closed it, tears welling in her eyes as they had in Margeurite’s, though again they refused to fall unto her cheeks. I knelt and put a hand on her cheek.
      “Charlotte, can’t you tell me what’s happened here? Marguerite says that there’s nothing to be done, that even the doctor is ill, but surely that’s just the madness of whatever this is talking.”
      “It is a madness,” Charlotte whispered after a long pause. “But it’s real. And there is no doctor. There’s no one. You must take Eduard and go.”
      I stood up in frustration. “Is that all anyone can tell me, that I must go? I’m not going anywhere until I see you all better again.”
      “Don’t be foolish!” I don’t know where she found the energy to say it so harshly. “Look at us! There’s nothing to be done.”
      “You’re tired,” I argued, pulling some of the blankets up from the foot of the bed to cover her.
      “Of course I’m tired! We haven’t slept all week, Mama even longer than that. Since the illness came it’s nothing but wakefulness and wakefulness while spirits come and stand in the corners, driving us all mad…” Her hands closed around my wrists and pushed them away from the blankets. “You must go before it devours you too!”
      I stepped away from the bed and stared at my once beautiful sister, now a faded version of herself. Even her lips seemed to have taken on the grayish hue of what I imagined a drowned person might look like.
      “I’m staying,” I said firmly. And then I turned to go downstairs, not knowing what else to do, nor where else to go.
      In the front hall, I found that the coachman had set my trunk inside the door and then, perhaps sensing the shadow of sickness and death, had decided to leave as quickly as everyone seemed to want me to. I went down to the kitchen and found it deserted. There was even a layer of dust beginning to form over the pots and pans that had been left out, including those on the fire hooks. It was almost as though the servants who had once staffed our bustling household had vanished into the air while they were about their tasks. Perhaps it was the way the gray light illuminated the particles in the air, but it also seemed as though those who had disappeared might at any moment return and pick up where they had left off.
      I didn’t know anything about cooking. I opened up the cupboards and the pantry, walking the length of it and finding a good deal of rotting food that the family had clearly not consumed in time. This prompted me to wonder when they had last eaten.
      Suddenly determined, I went out the back of the house toward the stable yard. I found it equally devoid of its normal caretakers, but the horses were still in their stalls, pawing occasionally at the floor while their warm breath was visible in the cool air every time they snorted. Just as I had never cooked my own meal though, I had never saddled my own horse. I looked around in frustration, wishing there was just one other person who might know what they were doing so that I could go into town. In answer to my silent prayers, I heard the floorboards creak in one corner of the barn and, upon investigation, I found an old blind man.
      “Excuse me, sir,” I said tentatively, studying his glassy and unseeing eyes closely. “Do you work for this house?”
      “There’s no one left in this house,” he said in an uneven voice that spoke more to his age even than his wrinkled face. “They’ve all moved on.”
      I frowned. “The Lamberts live here still,” I informed him.
      “Poor dear. For weeks now, they’re been dead.”
      Impatient to prevent just such a thing from happening, I skipped straight to the point, which was to inquire if he was capable of helping me saddle a horse. He turned out to be willing enough, and I quickly realized I would never have been able to do it on my own. The saddle itself was far heavier than I would have been able to lift unaided, and it required more buckles and hooks than I had realized.
      After fifteen minutes watching him ready the horse, I thanked him and pressed a coin into his hand. He held it up to his face as though he could see it and then put it up to his nose to smell. Pulling away quickly, as though it had an awful odor, he looked at me with such directness that I couldn’t bear to meet his faded eyes, blind as they were.
      It wasn’t accusatory, but it was abrupt, and the man crossed himself quickly. “God take your soul before the Devil does,” he said, before turning to walk away quickly – if walk can even be used to accurately describe his unusual gait.
      I used one of the rails in the horse’s stall to mount, and then guided the brown gelding across the western fields of the property toward town, wondering what I would find there.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The “L” Word

He looked so small as he kneeled in front of her apartment. It was something she wasn’t use to, him looking small. His hair had grown just beyond its normal length, hanging just over his forehead, blowing slightly in the night wind. His face was illuminated by the nearby streetlamp, and he looked like a young boy, eager for Christmas morning.

If you had asked her a year ago, this is what she would have told you she wanted. Still, six months ago, all she wanted was promises, the promise, a ring on her finger and the rest of her future set. Tonight, at this moment however, she felt like she was going to be sick.

He pulled the small cherry wood box from out of his jacket pocket, and she struggled to swallow. The box opened slowly, revealing a rather large round diamond ring with two smaller stones on each side, and she closed her eyes, wishing she was anywhere other than where she was.

“Isabella Christianson,” he began.

She opened her eyes, unfortunately finding herself still standing outside her building. As he reached to take her hand, she took a small step backward. “Christopher,” she interrupted, but it didn’t seem to phase him.

“Isabella, I know that things have been difficult these past few months. I’ve been working longer hours than I have in the past, traveling nearly every weekend, and I know that I haven’t always been there lately when you needed me to, but we’ve worked through it, Iz. We’ve been together a long time, gone through so many challenges, but here we are, still together, and I think that that honestly means something.” He tried to take her hand once more, but this time her body did not receive the message from her brain that said ‘don’t’. “Miss Christianson, you are the love of my life, and it would honor me beyond any expression that I am capable of expressing if you would spend the rest of your life with me.”

She almost choked, though she wasn’t sure if it was because of the tears forming in the corners of her eyes or her saliva that wouldn’t go down. “Christopher,” she tried again.

“Isabel.” There was a longing in his eyes that she had never seen before. He was trying to save them.

She shook her head, wishing it was a dream. “I can’t.” It came out just above a whisper.

He was immediately up on his feet, box still in hand, not more than a foot away from her. “We don’t have to get married right away,” he said, touching her face. “We can wait. I know that you’ve always wanted to plan - -”

“No, Chris.” She closed her eyes once again, trying to get the look on his face out of her mind. “I can’t marry you.”

His hands were gone from her. The red box magically closed and tucked back away in his jacket. “I don’t understand….”

“Chris, let me explain - -”

He held up his hand, silencing her. For a moment they stood there in the dim light of the streetlamp, avoiding eye contact, not saying a word. Then, without warning, without any mutter of words, he turned and leaped into his convertible. The engine roared to life and he sped away from the curb. Down the street, he took the first turn at an alarming speed, nearly losing control, but regained his direction quickly. He flipped the radio on and up, filling the night air with rock music. In that instance, he didn’t see the delivery truck pulling out from the ally.