Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, Volume One, December 2020.
Susan Millar DuMars is the recipient of a 2020 Irish Arts Council bursary to support her as she completes her second collection of short stories. Her first collection, Lights in the Distance, was published by Doire Press in 2010. Susan has published five poetry collections with Salmon Poetry. The most recent, Naked: New and Selected Poems, came out in 2019. Susan and her husband Kevin Higgins have organised the Over the Edge readings series in Galway, Ireland since 2003.
A Short Story
When I was a little girl, Constance was my world. I’d stand on her skirt, tug at her braid, grab her hand in both of mine and pull. “Let go, you chubby thing!” she’d say. But I’d hold on until she relented; took me up on her lap, into the calm shade of her, smoothed the curls from my forehead with long, cool fingers. We were together all the time. Constance and Lenore. I thought my name was ‘and Lenore’ as I never heard it but linked to hers.
Everything came to her first – dolls, clothes, attention. Not that she does not deserve such. No one could say that, for Constance is perfect. Slim and ladylike, luminous as stained glass.
Now if Constance is the prettiest lady in Philadelphia, Guy De Vere is the prettiest of gentlemen. Or do I mean handsomest? He looks a great deal like what’s-his-name, the actor, Edwin Forrest. Except of course where Mr. Forrest glowers, Guy sort of twinkles. And Guy isn’t quite so sturdily built. But he has the hair. Wild, thick hair, dark and shiny as a newly waxed table. And when he remembers to take his silly glasses off, Guy’s features could be carved by angels out of the most sympathetic marble.
I was sixteen when Guy became Papa’s pupil. I’d contrive to run into him in our front hallway. He’d be on his way to Papa’s study, his arms full of old books. He’d smile at me and say, “And how is lovely Lennie?”
“Just fine,” I’d say, smiling back. “Just dandy.” And we’d have a little chat, sometimes there by the coat rack, sometimes in the parlour over a cup of tea. Constance would be there too, of course. And Mama and the servants would be in and out. But Guy would talk to me. Mostly about theater — he was a regular attender of the Walnut Street Theater, and had seen Edwin Forrest there, in the flesh. Guy would describe these nights out to me, and it was as though I could feel the plush of the seats, hear the hush as the gold braided curtains parted…I would ask lots of questions, mostly to keep him with me longer, and Guy would give each one such careful thought. His lovely brows would pucker.
But eventually Papa would appear, with a professorial clearing of the throat, and Guy would grip his books to his chest and say sorry Sir, yes Sir and the two would disappear behind the study door. And Constance would say Well! and draw herself up. And then the house would go back to being quiet. I would open the heavy front door and stand on the top step, glorying in the rush of cold air, watching black birds wheel across a colourless sky and envying their flight.
And so things continued, week after humdrum week. Until the White Plague waved its wand over all of us. And everything changed.
The first victim I knew was Maude Quincy. Stout, bespectacled Maudie. She was unmarried, and she occupied herself by contributing articles and bits of verse to Godey’s Lady’s Book; one way or another she managed to become a sort of acolyte of Papa. She would shuffle into Papa’s study for poetry tutorials, never saying boo to myself, Constance, or anyone in the household. Then she stopped coming, and the word consumption began to be whispered behind hands.
The next time I saw her, she was transformed. Interestingly pale, a good deal thinner, her eyes alight with the glow of an internal flame. As though her soul was a votive candle and all of us in her bedchamber were praying around its flickering light. She periodically coughed into a white lace hankie. And when she took it down from her mouth, across its cloudlike innocence would be a spray of red. A collective gasp would be heard. I was fascinated.
I volunteered to ferry books from Papa to Maudie’s chamber, the better to observe these devotions up close. Guy was often there too, for he and Maudie had sometimes met with Papa together. Guy would sit at her bedside and pat her hand and speak with her, about – well, I don’t really remember what about. Some piffle about poetry, I suppose. What I noticed was the way he looked at her. Funny old Maudie had him mesmerized. Every wheeze of hers caused him to wince so miserably, one would think it was he who struggled for breath.
When she finally died, old Maudie was given a splendid funeral, and Godey’s published her final poems alongside a glowing obituary that declared her ‘a woman of spiritual purity, her sensitivity heightened by her suffering’. Not a bad result for that little field mouse who used to scuttle up our front hall.
The White Plague gradually changed from something peripheral and strange to something omnipresent. Each person knew a person whose family was affected. It was all anybody could talk about; one could scarcely clear one’s throat without receiving cow-eyed glances of concern.
Strange to think, but in her own way, little Maude Quincy was at the vanguard of fashion. For fragility became the style. Before long all the girls were using white face powder to affect the look of one ill. Some of us learned to swoon. And those who were actually unwell became the focus of small cults who would encircle the sickbed, memorizing every fevered last utterance. It was all terribly romantic.
The only one who didn’t think so was Constance. “Ghoulish,” was her pronouncement on the business. Constance doesn’t use powder, ever; her face is always scrubbed pink. How effortless is her beauty! How easily she glides forth to be the centre of everyone’s attention. How little she understands the hunger others might feel to be so adored.
And I only wished to be adored by one person…just one. That was not unreasonable, was it? He already liked me; this I knew. Just occasionally, I would be allowed to accompany Guy and Papa on one of their walks. Guy would take my arm. He would listen to me. I mean truly listen. Can you understand what that felt like? His attention was the coolest balm on the deepest burn. He listened and he tilted every word I said to make of it the best and prettiest thing. “My clever Lennie!” he would say. No one else ever called me clever.
But I wanted more.
So I tried fainting. I went with Guy and Papa to Head House Square one chilly afternoon; there was a scattering of rain which made Papa hasten to the cover of the Shambles. There the market stalls were busy and loud. I remember as Guy and I approached hearing men haggling in bold voices, smelling the sudden fleshy, tangy smell of the place and seeing the lurid colours of the stacked vegetables. A lone globe of crisphead lettuce rolled along the bricks toward my feet. It seemed the right moment. I made a little oh!, arched my throat in what I hope appeared a swanlike fashion, fluttered my lids and fell backward into Guy’s strong grip. It was easy. He was right there. He held me tightly, his fingers on my back. Cold raindrops on my upturned face. The distant caw of a circling crow. Guy’s voice, calling my name, my proper name. “Lenore!” After that, he never called me Lennie again.
It got to be a habit, I’ll admit. I learned the art of it, signalling first with a sound and a certain clawing of the air. Once I fell too suddenly and wound up in the sweating arms of Cook. After that I took care to manoeuvre myself as near to Guy as possible before I swooned. We fit together so well, he and I, in those moments. It was as if we were dancing.
At this same time I started applying powder liberally to give me the proper pallor. I began to winch my corset tighter to create the impression I was getting thinner. I then added a cough. When the cough became routine, I cut my finger and bled into a handkerchief. This I produced in Guy’s presence, held it to my lips during a coughing fit and allowed him to see, afterward, the scarlet stain. The way he looked at me! He took my hand, clutched it to his own chest. I could feel the thud of his perfect, opened heart.
My actual symptoms, when they came, interwove with my feigned ones. For a long time I kidded myself it was all my grand performance. I was an actress on a stage. And the heat was the heat of a spotlight, and the noise of blood and bile in my chest a trick to win applause. I dwindled to the shape of an angel, feather-light and solemn, my hair a golden halo. It all went faster and faster. I spun harder and harder – not a real angel after all but a Christmas ornament. Falling. Soon to break into pieces.
But not until he was mine.
It was a Sunday in December. Guy sat by my bed, reading to me from one of the fat, yellowy books of verse that he and Papa spent hours poring over together. I have no idea which poem it was, for I was not really listening to the words; only to the warm, sweet up and down of Guy’s voice. My hand was nesting within his.
Time had made a circle. For a few brief weeks I had smelled the rain, heard hoofbeats on cobbles. Felt Guy’s arms under me, around me, his breath on my cheek. Now I was returned to the house’s thick silence, Guy’s voice a small, bright window through which I could glimpse, but not touch, the magnificent world.
My eyes felt hot, so I closed them. In the darkness I heard a strange sound. Three sharp taps. Then a fluttering, like wings beating frantically. I looked and Guy’s face was near to mine, his lovely eyes creased. “Lenore, dear heart, stay with me.”
“Did you hear – has a bird flown into the room?”
“No, my darling. All is well.” He was squeezing my hand so hard I thought the bones would break. “You must not leave us yet, sweet girl. Oh, how can I make you stay?”
It was the moment. All my life had led to this. “Marry me!” I whispered.
Guy smiled as his eyes filled with tears. “Yes! Yes, of course I will.” He leaned forward and kissed me, very softly, on the forehead. I still feel it, the warm weight of his lips and his vow. I am marked by both.
Shortly after Guy had left, Constance came to me with a pitcher of water. I was doubled over, coughing helplessly, and she perched on the edge of the bed and rubbed my back with her free hand. When my breath returned, I said without looking at her, “I have accepted a proposal from Guy.”
The pitcher, a graceful thing made of white porcelain, did not shatter when she dropped it. But the handle broke off, and water soaked the rug.
Once when I was eight, I stole a piece of cake Cook was saving for Constance. They found out, of course; I’d left a trail of crumbs. There I was, hunched on the stairs, licking icing from my fingers. They told me I was wicked, and I felt wicked, and was ashamed.
But wickedness is like a fire; it devours and it shines. I do find its light so wild, so pretty.
She loved him. I knew it. Perhaps I knew it better than she did herself. It was clear in all her actions. The moments she’d pause at the hall mirror, patting her hair and moistening her lips before opening the door to him. The syrup in her speech when she’d offer him a cup of tea. Sometimes she’d shake off the servants and bring it to him herself.
Constance loved Guy, and it would have been the most natural thing in the world if he’d loved her too.
But what I learned, watching Guy with Maudie, is that Guy longs to rescue someone. And Constance, proud ship that she is, sails majestically across the waves of fate, never sending up flares, never asking for help of any kind.
So instead, I allowed him to rescue me.
When I woke for the last time, it was night and it was cold. Someone had left one of the windows open. I could see the cold, drifting in little white clouds across the room. And through the trailing vapors, like two ice flames, stared the red eyes of a crow.
It was big. It was perched on the end of my bed, observing me.
I shrank in fright. “Shoo! Scat!” I cried, but my voice came out a throaty whisper. The bird stayed where it was. Where was my family? Where were the servants?
It was just us two.
The bird simply stared. I fancied I saw judgement in its sharp face. I knew, somehow I knew, that it had been watching me for a long time. Collecting evidence against me. I looked at its red eyes and I knew it had seen every bad thing I’d ever done. It had followed the cake crumbs to this moment, here, where I sat, betrothed to the man who owned my sister’s heart.
I knew I would not live to see my wedding.
It had decided, it had decided! I would only wear white in my coffin.
“He loves me!” I wept. “Oh please, please…just let me have him!”
The raven slowly opened its wings like a great black cape.
Hell is not hot. I suddenly knew that it is a cold place. Creatures in ebony robes pass sentence, and ruby eyes dissolve you into a chill and restless wind, destined to cry ceaselessly on death’s dark shore. All because you hungered.
I pleaded, my voice a ragged hiss. “When will I be with Guy?”
The raven, I know, will have the final word.
© Susan Millar DuMars