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Obscurity, The Fortieth Chapter
In which the truth is revealed.
In the morning, she set an old copper kettle to boil. It was dented and worn, its patina tarnished, but it was perhaps the most beautiful thing the woman owned, and she treasured the heirloom as though it were fine china. As steam rose from its spout, she lifted it from the stove and poured it into the basin, kettle by kettle filling it with warmth, and imbibing the room with steam.
By the time she had finished drawing her bath more than an hour had passed and the elapsed kettles of boiling water had layered over one another with a contented heat. The woman disrobed, draping her robe to the side so that she might sink into the waters, slowly warming her limbs until even her fingers and toes settled into that divine soup. The waters were a salve, a warmth she sunk into. Her breath drew in the warm, wet air and was nourished by it. Her muscles could not cling to their burdens any longer and were released from them. Even her heart sighed of its anguish, at last released of the memories it clung to, so that it might beat free, her body at last filled with wellness and peacefulness and contentedness.
A slow sigh fell from her lips as she allowed herself to surrender to the beauty of the moment. The hours repose she passed in adoration of the kettle, the fog that pressed against the windowpanes, the rose-colored garments that awaited her when she dried, the tortoiseshell comb she would brush through her long tresses. She was no longer a woman of mourning, but a woman of happiness. And though she could feel that she would always be marked by her past, she would no more be burdened by it. Her darkness now existed only in the crypts of cathedrals, buried beneath a most beautiful spire, a living testament to life's more beautiful moments.
Once her limbs threatened to drift away from their lightness, the woman stepped from the tub and dried. Her robe of silk fell lullfully across the carpets as she settled into a gilded chair. How beautiful, she thought, as she looked upon herself in the mirror, for the first time seeing the skin that had been her mother's, the happiness that had been her father's. She placed her fingertips at her cheeks and upon her lips. She was a vision, and all the room around her a still life. A vignette of the many lives she'd lived.
The portrait that was once hidden behind wallpapered walls leaned against a wall, the silk robe woven from fabrics at her father's mill, the veil she had worn clasped with a pair of pearls within her attaché. Every jewel she owned fell from every trunk. And she, the most beautiful creature—the mirror holding something of her soul. Some elegance that was not outward, but was held inside her, alight as though she were a lamp placed at the top of a hill. She smiled, her red lips curling into a state of bliss, her eyes crinkling from sheer happiness.
The ménagère stepped into the room, as did the couturière, and the women smiled at one another, even laughed. The couturière combed Séverine’s hair and pinned a small white veil above her eyes, as the ménagère handed her a small bouquet of white roses, spirited with wild palms. They held hands for a moment, those three, and were happy.
Séverine St. Vincent married Rémy Delacroix that morning in the small chapel of the convent, lit with the light of a thousand candles, and she felt an unimaginable happiness as she did so, as though her heart could not possibly contain the surge of happiness that caused it to flutter. As though she must cease to be happy, just to settle so overcome an emotion.
The abbess was elegant in her age, wearing her wrinkles as only a French woman can do, the appearance of every laugh adorned upon her face the way a ray of light might appear in a doorway. She held hands with the bride and groom and looked upon them with love as their friends gathered round them and threw flower petals upon their heads.
It was a joyous occasion, but a small one, and when they were two joined at last, their kisses bestowed upon one another, their friends clapped their hands to bear witness to such happiness. All save one, a newly ordained priest who sat in the very last pew, wringing his hands at his own misfortune and praying for long-lost salvation.
Society types are easily distracted, and the ruin of the philanthropist was like a slight of hand to those who, until that moment, had been perpetually disturbed by the widow and her mystère.
She would go on to complete the cathedral, of course, and the cabildo, she would use her wealth to house the clergy. In the years to come she would establish an atelier where the couturière and her son would create the city’s most illustrative fashions. She would rebuild the captain’s inn and make it one of the most glamorous and sought after in town. She would continue her work at the convent and help with the establishment of the orphanage and the school for boys. She did so much for that small city where she lived, and yet she remained the most elusive member of it.
Those who lived in that town, and even those who did not, attended the cabaret with great regularity in hopes that they might catch a glimpse of that fair hand holding a glass of red wine, shrouded behind the secrecy of red velvet drapes as a pianist played forgotten tunes late into the evening. Even the governor lived in fearful awe of the woman who had once escaped from her prison cell and now could not be condemned for her valuable contributions to the city he presided over, and which only added to his good name and stature.
Indeed, of the stories added to the widow’s reputation in those days and the many days after, how she had escaped the convent walls beneath the eyes of a vengeful mob was among their favorites. The most accepted version of that tale had at the center of it the widow who was discovered in her cell unconscious, and at the outskirts of it the abbess who had assumed her charge dead, and not, as she actually was: in a state of sunlit slumber.
They placed her in a whitewashed tomb, it was said, and carried her upon the backs of men—through the throngs of people fearful for their children’s lives and hungry for the widow’s death. Once locked away in her crypt, her fingers clutching cemetery dirt in her fists, her eyes were opened by the prodding of the moon. She used the strength of the dead to lift the lid from her crypt and stepped out into the humid night to find the man who would become her husband, that she might drink the life away from his veins.
Of all the stories told about the widow, this one was perhaps closest to the truth. Séverine had, of course, escaped from her cell in coffin, for there happened to be one just beyond the reaches of her cell. As the reader might remember, there lay in the chapel a woman, a young rose whose coffin the widow had recently filled with peonies and prayers, and she was due to be transported to her grave site that very day.
The abbess allowed the widow leave of her cell, for this had always been her destiny. Despite her age and occupation, the abbess shared an unconventional yet productive goal—one that would do far better by the humanity that would endure after their deaths, than their government could be expected to provide. She escorted the widow to the chapel and kissed her on both cheeks before she entered the coffin, sharing the final resting place of that sweet young soul, their lips almost touching as they lay face to face in that tomb.
The black militia was called upon to remove that woman to the cemetery and the commander and his men heaved that box upon their shoulders and carried it through the unsuspecting villagers who clamored at the gates of the convent soon to be opened to their horror and dread. Once safely within the gates of the dead, Séverine was lifted from her coffin, the kiss of death upon her as her as the commander escorted her in her nightdress to the inn where she would be met by most expectant company.
When she reappeared at her cabaret a week later, drinking a glass of red wine in a dramatic gown of red silk and with an enormous emerald ring upon her finger, society could do nothing but whisper, so fearful had they become of her reputation and so convinced had they become of their suspicions.
Madame St. Vincent entered the convent one afternoon, one gloved hand holding the hand of the child as the other lifted the veil from her face. Upon the wall was a portrait of the Virgin Mother, a gift she had long ago endowed to the care of the convent.
Séverine hardly recognized the holy woman, whose eyes had once witnessed her husband’s shadow, and had seen the knife she held against it. Once, Séverine thought the Virgin Mother mourned the state of Séverine’s soul. That she saw a sinful woman and lamented her greatly. Now Séverine smiled at the nostalgia of such thoughts.
The Virgin Mother did not mourn for sodomites or hedonists, for gluttons or heathens, for sexual deviants or murderers. She knew nothing of sin and how it would come to be cast upon one another like stones, creating a moral high ground for the ones who threw them and a ceaseless guilt for the ones who received them.
The face now darkened with age was once a living breathing girl, the hands outstretched in prayer once rested on her growing belly, the mind that sought some meaning from the heavens was once bewildered by that small new life. The historical reality of the woman who once lived now lost to the artistic renderings of the woman they wanted her to be.
Her son had risen up against their oppressors and was annihilated for doing so, as was every man who had followed him and loved him—his life lost in the memories of the ones who were left among the ruins. Bodies that had fought for freedom. Minds that hoped to live free from persecution and to see in humanity not saints and sinners, but an even ground upon which they could build life together.
Séverine wondered what happened in the hundred years after the birth of Mary’s son and before their story would come to be written about. Were they words passed about on the lips of child soldiers? Murmurs of hope that they might one day defeat their oppressors? They failed, Séverine thought, for 70 years after her son's birth, the temple was destroyed, as was the movement they created and the cause her son died for.
It was only after that cataclysmic event, that their persecutors saw fit to resurrect it. To pull from the rubble some shadow of the truth and use it to make of the man and his mother a pair of martyrs, ones that would enforce the better behaviors of their adorers and adhere them more ardently to the regime who reigned over them.
But the movement the mother and her son created was not dead in that destruction. It lived on in the peasants and the rebels, in the enslaved and the oppressed, in the native and the immigrated, in the ones who rose up against the hands that attempted to silence them, in those who believed that an even ground could in fact be built, and strove underground to attain it.
The small flame that was sparked by a young girl and her son lived on in the hearts of la Nouvelle-Orléans and was lit in the soul of that city. A small recognition that though they might not be able to heal the world of its hardness, they could at least treat everyone around them with kindness and see in everyone the good.
In this, Séverine felt a peace. A freedom. She turned away from the mourning woman and walked out of the convent, determined to mourn no more.
We next read The Epilogue, and the final chapter in our tale. My Novelle Collectors will receive a (very) first edition, signed hardcover copy of the book, and the Kindle version will be available to all subscribers on August 1st, 2022.