Obscurity, The Twenty-Fifth Chapter
In which the territory faces unrest.
In those days, the most savant thing one could do, was attend a salon in the home of some grande dame or other, and this particular salon was hosted by the Veuve St. Vincent. Not a single calling card from that woman went unanswered, so lustful were their recipients of being granted access to her most secretive lair—and they were certainly not disappointed by her ornamental aesthetic.
The black brocade walls were adorned with green embroidered silk curtains, and the most decadent chandelier glowed with the light of a hundred candles sending a scattering of jeweled light about the room. They sat in blue velvet chairs, overlooking a most overgrown courtyard, their gloved hands holding coups of champagne and aged cheeses marbled to antiquity, as the jungle tipped into the windowpanes from below.
Hand painted playing cards sat upon small marble tables, as well as gold gilded decks they could not recognize. A clock with hands of emerald ticked silently against its face of pearl. Butterflies were trapped in crystal decanters, from which the servants poured the most beautiful libations. Guests held green silk napkins in their laps and ate food so beautiful it was as though they were eating jewels with forks of gold.
Small drizzles of tobacco smoke warmed the air with a most delicious scent, while unlabeled bottles of orange liqueur sloshed merrily into their glasses, and yet the widow was the most exquisite portrait among them. Draped in blue velvet, the most astonishing shade they had yet to see slip from beneath her layers of black outerwear, there were a string of sapphires wrapped about her waist and layers of amber agate around her neck. Her dark hair was brushed delicately into pearl combs and her lips were like rubies—her eyes kindling blue as though they were far away oceans crashing against tepid glass.
Their host welcomed each guest with a small kiss on both cheeks, but did not propose a toast, nor venture a topic of discussion. She merely sipped her glass of red wine and wandered about the room. At first, they spoke of art and leisure, of poetry and song, of the benefits of youth and the benefits of age, but their minds could not keep from the topic most salient upon their minds.
Their recourse turned to the revolution—first the Saint Domingue one, and then the French one—and they devolved into a debate about the sentiments that created them. The two guests most inclined toward that topic were none other than the governor and the philanthropist, each attempting to outwit the other—their verbal sparring coated with envy and greed as onlookers hesitated to watch.
“How ironic,” the philanthropist spat, “that a Frenchman should be responsible for keeping the revolution out of Spain.”
“And yet,” the governor countered, “it is only the very richest members of society, that the French take to their guillotine.”
Their threats hovered in the salon as a smoke, garnishing the room like a twist of orange. Just then, a letter arrived for the governor and was served up to him by his servant on a silver platter.
The governor excused himself to an adjoining room where he settled himself in an armchair at the widow’s writing desk. Tourmaline rimmed glasses sat upon parched letters, purple ink spiraling out beneath them, and black feather quills tilted against an aquamarine vase. He pondered those curiosities for a moment, then broke the wax seal, and read the letter to himself. It read as follows:
I write to you with the most remarkable tale. For it was only a fortnight ago that my son and I decamped at the Noxubee River to take in our evening meal. We disposed of a campfire, for we had heard talk of the tension that lived in that area. Even some of the natives who we had come across had warned us not to travel by this route, though we, imagining ourselves under the protection of Divine Providence, took no heed of these warnings and continued our way into the wood.
We had furs to deliver and would not be dissuaded from our task by tales of disagreement. We thought ourselves above any wordplay and haughty enough that we would be able to make a case for our encampment. Alas, it was only one day into our journey that we discovered ourselves at the mercy of misfortune. For as we approached that river, furs in hand, we heard the screams of some hundred men, attacking their brethren on the other side of it. Unsure as to what massacre was occurring, we took measures to hide ourselves along the bank of the river.
There appeared to be some court, whereupon two tribes had competed for several months. I had heard tales of such sport on my travels before—and well, it appears that the result of that match was disagreeable to the side who lost it. They devolved into battle and fought ruthlessly until the sun fell down from the sky, setting into motion a most merciless slaughter.
My son and I watched with great apprehension, until my son was discovered hidden in a thicket. I attempted to scream out but was silenced by my son’s pleading eyes. I could do nothing but watch as he was hung from the trees, the natives knawing at his fingers and toes with their teeth and smoking bits of his fingers in their pipes.
It was so gruesome to behold, my eyes spill tears upon this page as I remember it, and yet I could do nothing to remove myself from seeing it, so fearful was I of being discovered within those banks. Even now my guilt does not cease to torment me for my errs and I pray Providence to take pity on my most anguished soul.
I held my lungs still, and said my most fervent prayers, but fortune seemed fit to spare us by the dawning of the moon. I watched with great apprehension and stayed within my hiding spot until every native had removed themselves from the spot, some five hundred men left to sleep forever at that river.
I removed my son from that shadowed tree so that I might bury him in the ground, and we left under the cover of night, spared by Divine Providence to tell of this great story.
This is my full account of all that occurred at the Noxubee River, on this day of November, the year of our lord 1792.
With great sorrow and affection.
Your loyal servant,
The widow stood in the doorframe, watching the apprehension pass through the governors most expressive features. His brown hair was neatly combed, his navy blazer embroidered with gold stitching, a watch fob and seal attached to his waistcoat, and Parma Violets in his buttonhole—and all these small attempts at grandeur belied a much larger insecurity. He was a French man in a Spanish world, and a pauper playing among the princes.
The crone’s hands, old and weathered, ran through the waters now red by her sons’ blood. The sun made clear what her sons could never see—that as they fought between each other, the Spanish made to take that which was on their left, and the Americans made to take that which was on their right.
In many years, she had seen many things. Her people made Catholic, married to merchants, housed in brick buildings. But her memory could not be taken from her, and it remembered women dying strips of cane, their fingers pink as the sunset as they wove them into baskets. Open hearths that sent sparks of gold through corn the color of the mountains. Thatched roofs had once let in the warmth of the sky and the sparkle of the stars. The trees that grew tall around them and whose branches broke at night when the people of the woods saw fit to torment them.
And then they grew—in intelligence and ignorance. They sold to the white men the baskets they braided with their hands and the husks of corn they harvested with their brow, and in return they received from them weapons and liquors. Their fingers turned cold from the guns as they held them, and their throats burned with fire from the whiskeys as they drank them. And they could not see, though they could at least suspect, the reason they were given beastly things.
The weapons that were made to be used against the Americans or the Spanish were turned on one another. Their fathers, who chased after the sun to see where it went, sired sons who were kept from going so far—the secrets of the sun secured only by those who made claim to its sleeping place. They fought for the land they had left, the banks upon which the woman sat, the cool waters from another part of the world now drifting through her fingertips.
The old woman had watched as the sons turned sour, tormented by the spirit whose name she would not speak. Their thoughts flooded with fear, their cheeks flushed with want, and for those attributes they were overcome by the one most skilled at thwarting them. The one whose shadows could be seen chasing them, and yet could never catch them until the hour of their death.
The shadows had small beady eyes and long, pointed ears. They slid on their stomachs like snakes and screeched from the trees like owls. At first, they stalked the children, attempting to corrupt those innocent minds, but then they turned to their elders. They crept into their minds and made a feast of their souls. The old woman knew her sons had succumbed to such beings, for they had gone to battle like men and then died like babes, their shadows released from their corpses at last to wander the land as ghosts forevermore.
She heard their whispering as their blood sifted through her fingertips like gold. She heard their moaning as they saw clearly the ground from the trees. The branches clattered against each other with the sound of a thousand spears and the wind howled about them with the sorrows of a thousand deaths. Two large birds tumbled above them in a bloody brawl, squawking through the silence, as they wept the blood of their wounds upon the ground.
In the aftermath of that calamity, when the winds had calmed and the rustling of the river could be heard once more, the old woman heard a small ticking. She followed that sound to the place where the young man had died the night before and there discovered among a scatting of his fingers and toes, something the reader might recognize as a pocket watch.
She held in her hands that small token and watched with wonder as the hands turned slowly within it, then she put the glass to her ear and heard the beating of that young man’s heart, wondering whether his spirit now lived inside that small gold vessel and whether he would haunt her sons for the remainder of their days.
We next read The Twenty-Sixth Chapter, in which the abbess has a premonition.