Excerpt from ‘The Governess’
Somehow my discovery was not as edifying as I had hoped it would be. I watched her features shift and morph, grotesque like a mangled puppet. Her laugh was false and hollow, as though her insides had been scooped out and only the flesh remained. I imagined her imprisoned in her own body, captive to its whims and helpless against its desires.
I thought I saw her, or someone very like her, coming out of the crowded fog. Now why did I say ‘crowded’? Because of the hunched and gnarled trees gathering in clumps to cluck like wizened chaperones? Or something else? Anyway, it wasn’t her. I sang to it, the shape of a person, and watched its head jerk in recognition. Of what, I’m not entirely certain. The mist had shivered around the form, not quite settling on its disruptive presence. I felt I’d seen this moment before, in a painting or maybe a nightmare. I can’t quite shake a sinister feeling. It had a yawning maw. Now why did I say ‘it’?
Despite the moon’s cold and aloof demeanor, it always manages to strike the household with a kind of fever. I whistled a lie, because sometimes the Truth is false. The moon had seemed to retreat, surrendering to the doubt.
But still that shrouded visage is sharp in my mind and it stabs me with a fury. When I fell asleep, I dreamt I caught a falling star in a glass jar. I strung it up in a vial and hung it round my neck. The Song of the Mourning wept from it, overpowering aging and collapsing darkness while inviting it to overwhelm. Princes vied for it, and kings forged swords from the starlight. An evil ruler with chunks of ice for eyes, and shivering fog for breath, kidnapped me and locked me in a glass dungeon. I stared at my reflection and the million, million iterations of myself and watched as I shifted and drifted in and out of who I was, or am. I woke up with a cold laugh still tingling on my lips.
This dream reminds me of my Other Self. Of what came Before.
Georgiana is smiling at me shrewdly, as though she guesses my story. As though she knows it. I summon up enough fear to smile at her. It’s an odd smile, and then it occurs to me – I don’t smile. Her face grows impassive and I point sourly to her map. My finger lands on Egypt and she immediately rattles off facts about the pyramids and mummies and I simply stare at her. She notices and blushes. She opens her French book and I turn away.
Her gaze follows mine outside and I sense she sees the same shadowy figure, singing a song no one knows but everyone remembers.
From up in the schoolroom we hear a shout. We run out of the room and tumble down the stairs, for once thinking alike. We can hear one of the housemaids trembling by the drawing room doors.
“What is it?” I ask her.
She lifts an accusing finger. At first I think wildly that she will level it at me. “Guilty,” she would say. But her wisp-like wrist flutters as she points back towards the drawing room.
I stride forward and into the room, ignoring her horrified gasp. Georgiana’s small warm body pressing into my skirt flusters me. I feel distaste rising at the presumed intimacy.
Strung up in the drawing room are paper silhouettes. Their faces are mangled and yawning. They appear to dance as a draft comes through. Their shivering makes a kissing, rattling sound, and I swear one of the paper figures winks at me. It is a hideous and disfigured wink and I shrink before it. Georgiana seems to interpret my unease and begins tugging at my skirts.
“What do they mean?” I ask no one, and receive no answer.
Georgiana asked me why I like to write. I explained that it was a way for me to stitch words into people’s’ hearts. It’s how I poison them, how I destroy. But I didn’t actually say that. I just like to think I did so I can imagine the terror-struck moue her mouth would make as it first tasted this new horror. Oftentimes language cannot fathom the beauty and intricacies of thought. It must attempt to do so, but can be a mere mockery of its intended self.
I fear the rain.
My candle is spluttering and the wax sheds thick, fatty tears. I can’t sleep for thinking of the misty stranger who haunts me. If I listen hard enough I can hear a faint sound on the breeze, like a song coming out of the grave.
Georgiana is dancing in front of the mirror in the schoolroom. Her mother had it hung up for the purpose of teaching her daughter the perfect positions to best show off her figure and flounces when she came of age. I am to instruct her in facial expressions, curtseying, dancing, and pouting in addition to my governess duties. I suppose she considers them part of my governess duties.
I find myself walking up to her school books and idly flipping through our lesson for the day only to find a paper figure stuffed into the pages of Georgiana’s French book. It has a grotesque face, scoured with hatred and cruelty. There is something almost demonic in its features. But what makes it scarier is the ordinariness, the simplicity in the shape of the body. It looks as though a child has cut out the chunky hands and feet. Georgiana spins round to find me holding it and gasps.
I want to ask her if she made this, but I know she did not. I can see her pale cheeks sapping of all color. I can see her pinched forehead, creasing in sudden concern and terror. Written on the figure’s stomach is Mort pousse solitaire. For some inexplicable reason I look at Georgiana and find myself gazing fervently into the mirror. I begin drinking in all it sees, all it has the power to survey.
“What is it Miss? Why do you stare at it so?” Georgiana’s voice is a mere whisper to the crashing in my ears.
“The mirror saw,” I say softly.
Georgiana’s face registers horror as she too considers this. She turns to study the glass as well, scanning every item in the room, every inch of space that air is occupying. A glint from the sun makes me squint now. The room is sparkling and distorted. I’ve gazed too long.
A housemaid knocks before entering. Neither of us turns to acknowledge her, so enraptured are we with our visages. She clears her throat.
“The Master be wanting to speak with you Miss,” she says.
I do not acknowledge the receipt of this message. What need is there? She does not wait for one, she does not expect one either. The door closes with a muted thump.
I enter, still seeing the room through the mirror’s frame. Still clutching the paper figure in my pocket.
The Master looks at me with something akin to surprise. Surprised that I’m there? Or surprised by the wild, disheveled look in my eye?
“I’ll have you before this is over,” he says.
“Before what’s over?”
“Oh, I think you know.”
He watches the space behind my head, waiting for something to fill it. But no one does. I feel a trouble darkening inside me, I feel it physically, almost an ache. I look at him and raise a brow, because that’s all I can manage. But inside, I’m afraid. Mort pousse solitaire. Death grows lonely.
Softly, gently, disturbingly, it begins to rain.
I stare at his eyes, waiting for them to reveal something, they remain impassive. He couldn’t know, could he?
I light a candle, hissing back at the sputtering flame. I feel unnatural and cringe as my cotton nightdress crackles with every movement of my body. Swallowing a yawn, I creep into the vast hallway. I hear it again, a muted singing. It is a female voice and it softly lights upon the notes as the song rises and falls like the lapping of the sea. The darkness around me is total, my candle illuminating only the next step in front of me. The shrouded specters of furniture loom eerily on either side of me. I stare at the gloomy shadow of a portrait of someone long dead on the wall, and his face seems to twitch at me. I feel my breath getting tangled up in my throat. The singing stops. Sounds seem to emanate from nowhere, and in the distance a door slams. Or maybe it opens.
I feel a cool shiver lick the back of my neck and I turn to face my attacker. The hallway behind me is empty.
“Hello?” I can’t help but whisper into the dark, if only to fill the void. The void within me or around me? I’m not certain.
A shadow seems to move of its own volition, but no form materializes. I suppose it returned to the place that shadows go. They must breed somewhere.
I stride forward, grinding my teeth to cover the hushed murmur rising up around me. My feet move faster and faster until I reach a door I do not recognize.
I stare at it for a long time. I trace the cold lock and intricate handle with a curse biting my lips. A thought tumbles through me and the singing begins again. I suddenly know, in that innate way of knowing that if I go through this door, I will find the singer. As the infinite dark presses in with its deafening silence, I grasp the handle and open the door.
Something flutters past me, landing unobserved at my feet. The singing is louder now. A yawning staircase stretches in front of me, curving up and swallowed by the stars. The singing lures me forward, but now the notes that sounded so pure seem laced with malice and heavy with evil. The notes hang in the air and stifle me. My heart feels full and instinctively I clutch at my chest.
Forward I seem pulled. My feet serving a new master. The stone steps are cold even through my slippers; their exposed haunches filled with neglect and remorse. As though the very steps pity me. As I climb, my candle shines upon a looking glass leaning against the wall as the steps begin to curve in a new direction. The walls seem remarkably taller than they should have. The landing the mirror sits on is begrimed, yet the glass itself appears untouched by time or grief.
I gaze upon my reflection, rich with rumination, inlaid with memories. Mirrors capture emotion and store them to reflect back at a person at the right moments. As I look upon my reflection I realize that I am the one singing. I drop my candle and the light snuffs out. I scream but no sound comes out, it is stolen from me, snatched away by unseen hands. I race back down the stairs, while the darkness from above chases me. When I reach the door I realize it’s closed, yet I left it open. I am half-afraid and half-hopeful that I will find it locked. I grasp the handle, which is different from the outside, and stumble into the hall. I hear shuffling in the dark and an urgent whisper.
It’s then I notice the paper figure lying bent on the ground. Its hideous face leers at me and I’m too horrified to stomp on it the way my leg is pleading with me to. Instead I stumble and crawl back to my room.
Sleep has not visited me since; his company banished from me. The quiet scratches at my door alert me to his presence, but I am a maiden, virtuous and untouched.
I know if I sleep, I will dream I am drowning in ink. I cannot face this yet. A mocking paper face laughs at me while I stain my body with words, sentences, paragraphs unspoken, unknown, undone. I cannot allow those words to escape. I cannot let them beget the sentences or birth the story that would unfold from the splashes and the flailings of my death throes. I would choke and splutter until the pages are written and the mocking little face reads the lines and knows, knows and finds the mockery dying. The incessant laughter ceasing. The untold truths beating their solid white wings and staining the walls, covering the carpets, blacking the boots of the Master.
I’m not sure if I’m writing this story down in order. I fear I may have started at the end, but I can no longer distinguish the end from the beginning.