Obscurity, The Twenty-Eighth Chapter
In which a rose wilts.
There was, in that town, a woman as beautiful as she was sensual. She knew she could not live out the modesty so desired of her, so when she found a man as salacious as she, she allowed herself to become completely enveloped by him.
At first, they were just a duo, but then there was a third brought in for their delight in him. Soon after a fourth was brought into their midst, and at last a fifth, so consumed were they by their love for one another. Thus that beautiful young woman found herself the beloved muse of a small quartet of men.
A rose delivered to her home was signal enough to abandon her life and flee to the one they created for her. She wore silk that caressed her waist and lace that slipped from her shoulders. Ah, those shoulders! How delicate they were and how adored by her suitors! When she arrived, one beau kissed such a shoulder as another kissed the other. Still another touched his lips to her hand as the last kissed those most elegant lips.
She was their muse, their inspiration. Her skin was the color of creme, her long brunette hair unencumbered by pin or pearl, her fragrance as spring blossoms, her fingernails as perfectly shaped as petals. The four delighted in the soft sighs of her lips, the whispered desires of her heart, the lingerings of her touch. Their love was more than desire, it was the complete adoration of her. They kissed her, and they kissed one another for their love of her, delighting in the sweet symphony their love for her inspired.
She was as a honeysuckle to a small child, tender to touch and even sweeter to taste. Their fingers could not cease touching her, their lips could not cease to savor her. Entranced, her lovers drew her into the most beautiful ecstasy. They touched her until she sighed and caressed her until she wept. Her eyelashes fluttered as a butterfly's wings as her body awakened with pleasure, wettening sweetly as the nectar at dawn.
Drunk by their own desire, they were the very envy of Bacchus, their love worshipped as a god, their pleasure savored as a holy wine, their passion drunk deeply as from the goblet of life. But unlike those Greek gods of old, their mortal bodies could not stay in that ecstasy forever and, when the last of their pleasure had been tasted, the last sighs fallen from their lips, the last heave of their breasts released, they collapsed into one another’s arms as rain upon a meadow and slept soundly until the dawn.
This being a tale of the gothic tradition, we are reticent to admit a sixth party into that haven. Alas, unnoticed amidst that manage a cinq, tangled limbs obscuring their vision, relinquished pleasures holding their dreams rapt, the intruder had only to reveal the fine edge of a blade and slice it across that young woman’s throat, plucking that sweet rose ripe from the tree. Her blood fell as a waterfall upon the men she loved, and it was only another moment before every man in those chambers fell prey to the same fate—that most beautiful chamber of love, now a bloodbath of hate.
It was she who was found asleep in the widow’s courtyard the next morning, whose hand fell limp from behind the palms, whose form fell wilted like a rose, whose body lay blanketed beneath the morning dew. And it was she, whose blood was spilt in the widow’s residence upstairs. That dripped from the paintings and hung from the chandeliers. It was she whose soul could not be saved from that avenger of her sins.
The ménagère could not go on living with that spirit, and the residence was filled with her. The resins of her perfumes, her bare shoulders shivering in the breeze, strands of chestnut hair fluttering across her eyes. The ménagère could not keep herself from seeing that wasted youth in every corner and she was determined to remove her from its memory.
The young woman had been discovered in the courtyard. Her body, slackened against the stone walls and hidden amidst the birds of paradise, exposed nothing but her fingertips to the courtyard floor where she lay. The mercenary nestled that delicate soul in his arms and removed her of the widow’s home, carrying her to her final rest with solemn remorse upon his brow.
The residence thus removed of its inhabitants, the ménagère set about removing it of its spirits. Pouring boiled water over the courtyard she formed dark tidepools of water and blood, each pool a capsule of secret notes and whispered words and lost loves. She could almost hear the maiden’s voice calling gently from the eaves, longing for the simple pleasures of her life with a perfect sadness.
The ménagère shivered against the sounds of that soul, wishing she could no longer hear her words. She sang her own tune under her breath in hope that it might drown out the whispers, and as she did so she washed away those pools of memory, sweeping the remnants of that woman’s life into the plants so that her death might at least come to some life.
Of the interior rooms, the ménagère washed every wall and every ceiling and every chandelier. She washed the window frames, and the portraits. She freed the mantle of its dust and washed it of its soot. Each book was turned from its location, dusted, washed, and put back into place. Using buckets of boiled water and brushes of wild boar’s hair she drenched the carpets with water and scoured them of their blood. Then she hung them over the balconies to drip their memories into the courtyard below.
Once the residence was cleansed of its spirits, the ménagère proceeded to infuse it with good ones. She purchased bottles of holy water from the convent and used them to water the plants so they might breathe holiness into the air as they drank it. She set small stones about in the soil and placed them where they might see the sun, reflecting its warmth into each room.
The candelabras she removed of old wax and filled them with fresh candles from the country. She oiled wooden countertops, window frames, and door jams with essences of wild rose and orange. Then she burned bundles of sage rosined with frankincense and myrrh and set them upon dishes about the home, so the whole of it was filled with a fragrant smoke.
The ménagère spent the evening wading through the bayou, filling her basket with wild herbs and flowers as her chemise trailed in the waters behind her. She gathered all the things she would need for her cooking, her healing. For a meal provides sustenance and medicine, three pounds of it each day, and she intended to fill her family’s bellies with goodness so that they might be sated and fortified.
She wandered for several hours, humming a tune with her mother as she sang herself into the deep—where the branches claw at one another up above and the grasses moan in the wind down below until at once her toe brushed something sharp. She was aware, by this point, of her penchant for discovering lost artifices in those waters, and yet this was not the soft flesh of an abandoned soul, but the serrated edge of something solid.
Setting her basket to float atop the water, she reached into the bayou with her hands and pulled up a skull, dripping with tangled reeds and grasses. It was an alligator, its eyes vacant of life and teeth gleaming with blood from her toe. It was dead, the bone dry, and yet when she touched it was relieved of its memories. As though they had been locked inside, burdening their corpse, until they unburdened themselves into the mind of the ménagère.
There was a man swimming. He must have been 25 years of age, as spritely and active as he was dashing and youthful. A soldier, she felt, he washed his body and scrubbed his toes, splashing his face with fresh water as though there were no dangers lurking beneath. And yet there was danger to fear. Submerged beneath the surface was a predator uncompromising to those who disturbed his home. Indeed, the alligator was greatly disturbed—and not for the first time.
It might be difficult for us to understand the inner workings of an animal’s mind, and yet of the alligator the ménagère knew one thing to be true: there was a feeling of aggression. A slow rage building from within, an all-consuming desire to attack. It was instinctual—unpaired with emotion or feeling or rationality. It was merely preservation. A reaction to that young man splashing about so freely into the waters, unaware completely of the beast whose ire he awoke.
It rose from the deep, brackish waters falling from its back, and then that jaw opened so quickly and powerfully it could not have been stopped. It latched onto that human quickly, blood spooling out into the waters. Screaming could be heard from the shores, then gunfire. The alligator was shot, his jaw released, his body slackened, he sunk. He drifted for days that way, until at last he joined the deep from whence he came.
The ménagère wondered, for a moment, what had happened to that young man. Then she removed the reeds from the skull as though relieving the last memories from it, placed it in her basket, and resolved to set it upon the mantle in their home where it would come to protect their home, just as it had once protected his.
We next read The Twenty-Ninth Chapter, in which the mercenary hunts the Comte.