Obscurity, The Twenty-Second Chapter
In which we meet the second of the Maries.
Sometimes one must collect oneself when the pieces go scattering about.
Such was Séverine’s intent when she walked to the convent one morning. Free from the stimulations of society, Séverine was able once more to experience the stimulations of her own mind, and they were all too disquieting. Beneath her skin, she felt a mild panic that could not be soothed—a sort of anxious energy coursing through her body. This feeling was not unfamiliar, for Séverine was sensitive in nature and any stimulation, excessive or otherwise could contribute to a greater sense of her unease.
We are well aware that all who read these words do not experience the world in this way—and we do not fancy ourselves expert in such matters. But perhaps we might, at the very least, explain to the reader that which is felt so strongly by those more empathic in nature.
That morning Séverine felt something akin to the feeling one gets after a great scare, perhaps a frightening experience or a near brush with death. Such an experience might leave one feeling shaken or disturbed. In fact, it may take a moment, or a great many of them, to regain one's composure and calm one's nerves after such an arduous ordeal.
Though ordinary individuals experience this feeling only on very rare occasions, those who feel the world more deeply do so at a more frequent pace and it can be altogether unsettling. At night, Séverine would lay in her bed with her hands at her chest, clutching her heart as it faltered beneath so strenuous a load. One heart cannot beat for very many, and Séverine’s beat not only for herself, but for all who risked their lives by their very proximity to her.
One of her greatest fears, and this one she recognized plainly, was not that she would finally face her foes—for she always knew that would be the case—but that someone else might face them in her stead. That the child might be found drowned in the river, that her lover might be found at the edge of a dagger. That blood would follow those who loved her, and that produced a great dread within her.
During the day, such anxieties were eased from her mind. Indeed, she could not have told the reader that she felt them at all, though we can assure the reader with great certainty that they remained on her consciousness if not so plainly at the surface. For the body senses things that the mind cannot, and hers, being more attuned than most, sensed a great number of things simultaneously.
We know that positive stimulations, such as joy, love, and happiness fill the body, nourishing every organ as a spring nourishes a nearby meadow, so also negative stimulations such as fear, worry, and pain, poison the body as a contaminated spring turns those fields fallow. Overburdened by the toxic tributaries of her mind, Séverine’s body struggled to function optimally. Her heart ceased to beat, her lungs gasped for air. In those moments she thought she might perish from the world altogether, but then her heart would beat once more, her lungs would breathe another breath, and she would live to see another dawn.
Séverine was no stranger to the trauma that could dwell within a person, submerging itself in that great ocean of the human psyche only to wreak havoc on the ships that dwelt upon its surface. She also knew that she must recognize its symptoms, and to seek for it a cure. To root out the serpents whose ripples were felt at the surface, or at the very lease subdue them before they pulled her and everyone around her into the deep.
Séverine took a deep, steadying breath into her lungs, then she walked through the convent doors.
Séverine hadn’t walked through the gardens in quite some time, and the wild had grown closer since then. Birds chirped madly, flinging themselves from branch to branch above her with reckless abandon. Palm leaves fluttered in their wake and thick ferns hung over the white walls of the convent, draping heavily into the garden in which she stood. The air drew near, holding her in its warm embrace as the sun permeated her being with a deep contentment.
Here their French proclivities led the sisters to grow a gentler sort of flora, roses of every color, jasmine crawling up the walls, and lavender peering out from blossoming trees. But the native environment was more brash than those fragile creatures from across the sea and they would not be outdone by such dainty figures. They blossomed wildly, their tropical fronds pouring in every direction, creating an exotic perfume that was both wild and tame, native and foreign.
The air felt purer here and Séverine found she could breathe it into her lungs more deeply, allowing her thoughts to flow unbidden as a stream might tumble over a tumultuous riverbed. She did not give attention to any particular thought, but merely allowed them to flow, recognizing the overall direction of them and seeing how very stupidly they bent toward her own inequities. They told her that she spoke her mind too clearly. That she disregarded social custom too easily. That she followed her own mind too detrimentally. And then, perhaps most painfully, that those she loved might come to know those faults and discontinue kinship with her.
Tortured by the weight of every improper thing she might have said or done, she found herself dwelling in her own failures and consumed with the fear that others might know of them. Perhaps the child could never love another mother apart from his own, she thought. Perhaps the ménagère was never really her friend, but merely her employee. Perhaps the captain was not her benefactor, but a pirate using her for her position and rank. Perhaps the man she loved only loved her in the way that all Frenchmen loved women: for their wealth and piety.
The anxiety, the panic, the self-flagellation—it was not so simple as she had supposed. It was not that the family she had built for herself might one leave her, but that they might choose to. There, at the very bottom of her being, in the place toward which every underground thought flowed, lay her deepest, darkest fear: the plain and simple fear of not being loved, and the even darker fear of being left alone for it.
She had been alone before with nothing but the darkness to console her, but that life had not mattered. She could have been swallowed up by the world, were it not for the light that Providence kept enshrined about her, leading her from the darkness as a prisoner led from his dungeonous cell. But then she had found this community. One that made her life richer, fuller, solely by their presence in it. And that made her every misdeed all the more offensable, for there was so much more to lose.
Séverine allowed herself that deleterious moment. To dwell in the darkest thoughts of her soul. The ones that told her she would never be enough. That she was not good—not as a friend, not as a mother, not as a lover. That all would pass away and perhaps it was for the best.
The darkness works in that way. In a weak moment, when the mind is tired and the faculties exhausted, a dark thought can more easily slip between the mind’s fortifications, and there spiral those thoughts in a downward direction. It is a rather unpleasant feeling, and one not easily remedied. But as her mind wandered through the twisted pathways of fear, like the snake that once plagued the earliest of gardens, she at last recognized it for what it was and stomped it beneath her feet.
Determined to change her mind’s course, she took a deep breath of that warm summer air, intoxicating as it was, and built a levee in her mind that might reroute those languid waters, purifying them as freshwater does when added to a marsh. Those fresh thoughts were much lighter in continence, like the scent of a rose against the wild chatter of the jungle. She was good, she thought. She was alive. She was free.
For a while, she lay down on a white marble bench, its touch cool against her skin, and allowed the wild to close in on her. Leaves fell onto her skirts as they twirled from the trees, butterflies fluttered against her cheeks, insects crawled over her toes where they touched the wild earth. For a moment she thought she might die happily in that embrace, as though the gardens might grow in around her, and she might be lost in their vines forevermore.
Words drifted through her mind. L'Éternel est mon berger, they said. The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
She felt that Presence hover over her once more and she felt His peace within her. It was a relief, that though she lost her religion, she did not lose that which was most beautiful about it. Her body relaxed as she closed her eyes and returned to her field of wildflowers, where her Lord could meet her once more, and kiss her eyelashes gently as she slept. Beloved in her Creator’s embrace.
When she awoke, Séverine found that the second of the three Maries had discovered her and was sitting on the bench beside her, brushing Séverine’s hair with her fingertips. Beneath the veil of mourning and the veil of consecration, they were but two women who had once been French girls swept up in the arms of Revolution.
They spoke of simpler times. Of baguettes with beurre blanc. Of oyster shells rich with treasures, fresh from the sea in the wintertime. How the sea had soothed their countenances, how it had flowed over their toes and brought curls to their hair. Those times were far away from both women, before the years of had turned them away from such things and placed roles and responsibility upon them. Life was so simple then, and yet had become so complicated now.
The second of Maries, we must introduce to the reader as a romantic. In another life, she’d fallen in love with a Provincial farmer and been forbidden to marry him for her nobility. When she was found to be pregnant with his child, her parents sent her away to a convent where her sins might be concealed. But the convent at Saint-Denis proved more curative than her parents anticipated. She grew to cherish the companionship of her sisters, and they clasped her hands tightly in theirs as she gave birth to a most beautiful baby girl.
Marie wept when she handed the child to a farmer and his wife, a couple that could have been her and her lover, if she had lived in another time and another place. When the bleeding stopped, she decided her mourning was over. She did not answer her parents’ pleas to return and instead stayed in the convent where the Lord had preserved her and created a life for her.
In this small rebellion she found herself among a community of women who were free from the shackles of society. How wild an adventure they had been swept up in then, and who could have foreseen where it would end. Here she and her sisters were an entire continent away, and an entire lifetime. They swatted insects away from their faces and laughed at the absurdity of it. They were in God’s country now, and the civilization hardly accomplished at taming it.
Séverine smiled at her friend and felt happy in her embrace. Together they held hands and meandered through the gardens—sweet nothings spilling from their lips as they walked. Nothing could be said for the future, they thought, but the present was always available to them. The sound of a friend’s voice is more comforting than the sound of one’s own mind, and they spent the afternoon bathing in one another’s words.
When at last the dusk began to settle, and the roses drew into themselves once more, the second Marie, hesitant to speak fear into the calm, at last whispered to her friend: “If only the other Marie could feel so happy as this,” she said demurely. “It appears she has grown quite restless with scrubbing floors, when she knows a greater adventure exists out of doors.”
We next read The Twenty-Third Chapter, in which the widow is discovered in a rather unusual part of town.