Obscurity, The Eleventh Chapter
In which a scream is heard within the widow's estate.
We last read The Tenth Chapter, in which daughters atoned for the sins of their fathers.
The child moved with the moon woman to a large plantation home down the river. It was beautiful—a castle the likes of which his mother could never have imagined. Large white columns supported the estate as though it were held aloft by the hands of giants, and the slumbering swamp behind it could transport one to any number of adventures.
The child became enveloped by his new surroundings. They became a magical canvas upon which any number of landscapes could be painted—where the Leopard King reigned over the swamp from his green velvet chaise and firefly fairies danced at nightly balls. Giant pink birds of paradise bowed to the child where he walked and a toucan with a damask beak sang for his entertainment.
In life, the child had experienced both sadness and happiness, but he knew no other life than that kind and so he felt both feelings deeply. Sometimes he imagined his mother lived in the reeds, and he could hear her whispering in the wind. The plantation workers joined in his adventures. They told him stories in their own language and sang him songs from their home land. They spoke with his mother as though she were queen of the jungle—the wife of the Leopard King finally returned to her throne.
One of the plantation workers, an old crone who spoke only in riddles, made the boy a makeshift machete from the branches of a tree. “The holy man comes,” she said as her eyes glinted into the mangroves/ “His treasure is in gold and emeralds and rubies, but he has lost it in the swamp, and it sinks beneath the estate.
She at something the boy could not see. “He will come for it,” she said then—a fierce warning to her eye.
The child was happy to have a blade of his very own and he used it to carve a path for himself through the swamp. Where the grasses grew so thick and tall that he could not see above them, he cut a great estate with bedchambers and barricades and a watch room where he could peer through the brush and look out for predators: The black panther who crept silently by night, perhaps, or the giant snake who wrapped itself around its pray.
One evening, as the sun fell behind the gnarled branches of the swamp, the child saw a shadow. At first, he thought the apparition a trick of the light, but then his eyes adjusted to the dusk and he saw a long, dark cloak obscuring the face of the one who wore it. It was the panther, he thought at once, transfigured into the body of a man, his yellow eyes blinking through the reeds.
The child was afraid, but he had been preparing for this day. He was a jungle prince and he had to protect those who lived within his realm. Tiptoeing around the back of the estate, careful not to make a sound, he snuck through the workers entrance, stealing the key from the moon woman’s skirts so he might lock the door behind him.
It started to rain that night, the droplets dinging against the glass windows. Séverine was just about to retrieve the child for supper when she found him running into the parlor, his shirt wet from the rain and his clothing in disrepair from the day’s delinquencies. She pulled the child up into her arms where he tucked himself into her neck, safe from the coming storm.
In a manner of minutes, the rain began pouring in earnest, creating a sound so loud that it roared through their ears. The wind picked up then, the shutters banging themselves against the house in a thunderous ballad of sound. The effect was quite frightening for the child, and he wept in Séverine’s dress as she called for the housemaids to close the shutters. The rain wet their hands as they closed themselves into the storm.
For those who have never been inside with the shutters shut tight, we should explain how very dark the darkness becomes. The shutters eliminate even the faintest of stars, bringing the estate into a terrible shadow that is accompanied by an even more terrible quiet. It can be a most fearful experience, the quiet that rests in the middle of a storm, and indeed the storm became more viscous by the minute.
A housekeeper lit the fire and it became the only light against the cavernous darkness of the night. Séverine took the boy into her arms and they sat together in silence, listening to the wind bellowing with all it’s might. Even Séverine had to admit that the storm had taken a rather treacherous turn and she hoped her home had been built to outlast it.
She asked one of the kitchen maids to bring her and the child tea with extra sugar so that they might soothe their anxieties. They held each other closely as branches whipped against the shutters in earnest, thudding like giants banging their fists against the walls as the windowpanes creaked in the battered wind.
A shiver was shared between the widow and the child, just as tea was brought out to soothe them. Séverine poured herself a cup and a cup for the boy as well, placing a cube of sugar in each of their drinks so sweetness might do away with their sorrow. The boy calmed, though his eyes were alert to every shadow as the candlelight flickered against an imaginary wind. At last, their ears perked, they heard a sound more harrowing than most, the scream of an anxious young maid who came hurrying into the salon.
Séverine asked what was wrong, but the girl laughed nervously and said she only had a fright. She had walked past the servant’s entrance only to find the door banging back and forth on its hinges as though someone were attempting to enter it. But she had checked the door and it was locked. The maid reassured her mistress and herself, that it was only the wind that had been the cause for her alarm.
The boy burrowed into Séverine’s dress ever deeper, and she held him even tighter. The wind turned at a frightening pace and a loud whistle screeched through the rafters. Everyone kept quiet as their anxieties edged around them, listening as the sounds grew louder, and the battering grew fiercer. At last, all were startled by a loud banging at the front door.
The child clung tight to Séverine, fearful of the face that might appear at the door. The banging continued with great urgency until Séverine instructed the young maid to answer it. The boy screamed out in warning, but the maid had already opened the doors and was struggling to hold them fast against the wind.
There on the doorstep, soaked with rain, his cloak billowing around him in the wind, was the foreboding figure of the mercenary. The storm waged outside as the man dripped its remnants onto herringbone floors, the maid hastening to shut out the sound as she shuttered the doors.
“Madame de Saint Germain,” the mercenary said, speaking an old name into a new salon.
Séverine’s mind fell, toppled from the ledge of where she stood, her hair fastened with black sapphires, the long pointed waist of her dress the same color as wine drunk from a long forgotten cellar, the child clinging to her skirts as though she were already lost.
She saw her whole future then. Her hands were bound. Her eyes wandering past the life she created. The hand-tufted rug, intricately woven with bright blue peacocks and plumes of emerald feathers. The Campeche chairs framing a most austere blue velvet settee. The chandelier weeping fronds of crystal into the room as a palm tree might despair of its branches into the wind.
She was led into the storm, it’s chaos hurtling gusts of guilt against her. It’s wrath wept tears of rain that drenched her. The wretched cries of the branches wailed about her. The moaning of the trees trembled deep inside her. The storm was the last thing she would feel. The unruliness of the world trembling against her skin.
In the morning, her footsteps were lost to the mud and the old woman sat on her stoop muttering about something that once occurred there but that existed there no longer. The child was lost to the whims of slavery. The estate sold to the highest bidder. Its inhabitants turned over to another master and haunted by another history.
By the evening her heels hung from the gallows, knocking against one another in the breeze as passersby wondered what sins that woman had committed, whose red velvet dress now drifted against her toes, and whose diamond earrings now dangled against her neck.
How strange it was to no longer exist, and even stranger to have existed at all. That for a brief, wondrous time, there existed upon the earth a creature who had the awareness enough to know of their own existence, and the awareness enough to fear the ending of it. In all of creation, we wonder if there ever was so anomalous an event as that, and whether there will ever be such a thing again.
Then, as suddenly as her mind had fallen, it returned, awakened from it’s descent by the deep hum of the mercenary’s words. “Madame de Saint Germain,” he said again with great urgency, shaking her with the timber of his truth.
“It is my belief that your husband, the Comte de Saint Germain, is very much alive, and very much a threat to your existence.”
The child was perhaps too much a child to be privy to such intimate conversations. And yet, he had fallen asleep against his moon and so she had allowed him to stay, listening to the lull of soft voices speaking late into the night as though they were the gentle rocking of a lullaby.
From time to time, the fire would crackle, awaking the child ever so slightly. It was in these moments that he heard his moon speaking of a phantom. Her voice was tender and afraid, as though she knew what darkness haunted her. Childlike phantoms become all the more terrifying when they are real and the child, in his dreamlike state, could not determine how very real those conversations were.
When the evening grew late, the moon scooped the child into her arms and brought him up to bed—but not before he could see with his own eyes that the door to the servant’s quarters had been shut. It stood solid, barred against the wind, with only the gentlest rock to it despite the chaos that still raged outside. The child reminded himself that there was nothing that could harm them that night—that it was only the man he had seen earlier that day.
The moon tucked him into his bed, kissing him on both cheeks before she bid him goodnight. “Madame,” the boy said sleepily before she left. “Will Monsieur stay the night?”
“Oui, mon cherie,” the moon responded, soothing his hair with her fingertips and appearing in the light of her candle as though she were the very portrait of heaven. “He will stay in the guest quarters to wait out the storm. Do not fear my child, for we will protect you. Now say your prayers and attends-toi to sleep.”
His moon left, folding the child into a darkness so deep and terrible it was only possible when the moon was out. The boy drew his blankets to him, widening his eyes as though it would help him to see in the shadows. His room was elegantly furnished with a large bed, a canopy, a chest of drawers, a collection of toys, and a beautiful velvet settee. But he could see none of these things in the dark—there was not even a light from beneath the door, nor a shadow that could be detected. Only the purest of darkness.
“Now I lay me to sleep,” the boy recited softly, “I pray the lord my soul to keep; if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
The wind picked up then, and a dull thud against his shutters caused the boy to jump. It must have been a tree branch, the boy reasoned, his ears now searching every sound. The silence was impenetrable, and yet it was not complete. Every sound was muted by the thick walls of the estate and the heavy wooden shutters that protected its windows. The boy could hear the wind whistling through them, causing them to rattle on their hinges like a ghost in its chains.
And then there was an even smaller sound—a breath. The boy was sure of it. He tried to reason it away as the wind and yet his mind could not keep from hearing it so plainly. It was the sound of a man breathing not a few steps away from his bed. He stared into the darkness as though he might be able to see into it, but he could not. The darkness was consummate. Blanketing the room as though one might never escape from it.
Except there, where his settee should have been. Was that a pair of eyes? The boy searched for some source, some light that could be toying with his vision, but he could find none. The two lights remained, and then, did they blink? Without the benefit of his senses, the boy could see only the things he could not see and hear things he could not hear. His mind wandered in this way for what felt like hours, unable to discern the edges of his reality from the edges of his dreams. He lingered between the two. Unable to stay awake, and unable to fall asleep.
In the dark he whispered to his mother. Maman, he called softly. He asked for her protection—that she might spend the evening with him and his family in the dark and protect them from harm. Eventually he felt the embrace of his mother’s arms around him and at last was able to fall fully into sleep, and there dream of a better world that would awake him.
We do not know whether there was actually a man who watched the boy sleep. What we do know is that the next morning, when the young maid awoke and settled about her chores, she let a piercing scream fall from her lips.
The door to the servants’ entrance was completely and entirely absent from the estate, the hallway wet where it hadn’t been protected from the storm.
A check was made of the house and everything was found to be in order, Monsieur and Madame made a rather thorough examination of it, but the door to the house was not to found, and the reason for its disappearance impossible to ascertain.
We next read The Twelfth Chapter, in which a corpse is discovered behind the Cabaret St. Vincent.