Us Lovely Monsters

For each generation of children, there are fears of destruction hurtling at them from the outside world.  Growing up in the 80s, we had many to choose from, but nukes, kidnappers, and serial killers topped the list.

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The first of these was optimistically if grimly tempered with the conventional wisdom that Russia wouldn’t bomb us because they knew we’d bomb them back.  However sound this logic may or may not have been, it was a comfort and whenever it rose anew, we kids all nodded sagely and hoped that it was right.

If my Uncle Eddie, who should have been moldy from carrying so many wet blankets around, were present, he’d say something like, “It’s Korea you have to worry about. Chinks.  They’ve got nothing to lose.”  I’ll leave that there.

Kidnappers seemed the more likely threat.  Mom was always cautioning us against getting away from her in stores.  “I just think of that made for TV movie I saw… That poor woman never forgave herself.”  There’s a cold comfort in knowing only ABC ratings bait stood between us and a life of captivity in a backyard compound made of rusty car parts.  Were a haggard JoBeth Williams in a ruffled working mom blouse even a skosh less haunted about leaving her son alone in the McDonald’s fun house to take a shit, one of us kids would have been decorating milk cartons.  Thank you, JoBeth, thank you.

Serial killers still creep me out, as they darn well should.  As a kid in the post-70s, the nation had come through so many hardships with Vietnam and Watergate and Sonny and Cher, that when the anchor people turned to the latest case of a missing woman in the greater metropolitan area, you could tell this was the new lighter fare.  The gravity of their eyes lessened almost as much as if they were about to take us to footage of a family petting zoo getting a reprieve from a tax audit.

Stories about serial killers was such standard issue in the 80s, that when I started a kid detective agency with my sister and cousin, we wrote out detailed MOs about our made up killers.  It was pretty professional grade stuff.  Our sick sons of bitches tended to go after look alike nurses who drove similar cars.  Case file notes included phrases like ‘pert nose’ and ‘strawberry blond’ and ‘dark green Pontiac’.  We cajoled my mom, who worked from home as a medical transcriptionist, to type our reports up on her hospital-issue forms, but we had to draw our crime scene photos ourselves.  No matter how grim the carnage, each shot wound up with a Crayola sun and flying bird in it somewhere.  It wouldn’t have taken Judge Wapner to point out these were inadmissible in court.

The end result of all these fears was that it taught me the notion that people were possibly more apt to be monsters than heroes.  Time has revealed a more nuanced truth: people can be disappointing and disheartening, but most of them aren’t planning to drop bombs, steal your kids, or toss your body parts into the Green River.  But before I learned that, I saw the world as grimmer than statistically possible.

One night my folks drove us home from my grandmother’s house, the car wending through forests to left and right, and I passed out of childhood.  Until then, I had thought of the woods as threatening, just as they were in fairy tales.  Then we passed a small house with a sparse lawn glinting in the moonlight.  There was only a single window lit and I imagined that someone was doing something horrible to someone else inside.  The threshold was passed through in that instant and goblins and bears and wolves faded into fancy, leaving behind the big fear of adulthood: each other.

 

My Thundercloud

She didn’t bring in no wood this afternoon, but I don’t give a shit.  Most days, she don’t do nothing I ask, so today ain’t no different. But it got warm all of the sudden, after that little rain shower, and almost humid like summer.  Here in October. So there ain’t no need for stoking the fire and I guess that means she gets a pass, like most always.

Funny how Carrie always skates on this side of luck.  It’s always been that way.  When we were young, when her Daddy was beating up everything he weren’t feeling up, her Ma got in trouble with the law and she went to live in Indianapolis or some such shit with her grumma.  She was away all them years that man was terrorizing the rest of us.  The girls got tits and the boys got whiskers and the one made that nasty son of a bitch get a hard on and the other made him itch to fight.  The meanest bastard ever tore hisself out of a woman.

Then the year she come back to live on the block, he got sent to prison for something or other.  It wasn’t for putting it to the girls and it weren’t for beating up boys under age.  Probably selling pot.  So she comes back and gets to move in with Aunt Sally and it’s just the two of them.  Aunt Sally just works and sleeps, like she’s always done.  She never paid her brother no mind.  If she weren’t holding down the counter at the video store, she was taking NyQuil and passing out in front of the TV.  She loved herself some Golden Girls.

With Junior out of the picture, Aunt Sally was glad enough to have another body around that nasty place. They had fly ribbons all year round, thick as lumps of raisins hanging by the door.  Well, it’s gone now, torn down cause of black mold.

Queen bee got the royal welcome.  A new set of sheets and a trip to the mall for some new clothes.  Carrie primped in front of the mirror, tossed all that black hair of hers around like a princess in a cartoon movie.  Aunt Sally came in and was like, they forgot to charge us for your jeans.  More luck.

She’s lucky about timing and weather and people falling out of harm’s way before they get to her.  She makes me think of them old cartoons where somebody bends over to tie their shoe right before a piano would’ve landed on them.  So it ain’t no shock it got warm today when I said to bring in more wood.

I never had no such luck.  If I let someone cross the road on the way to work, the light turns red on me and then there’s a train coming after that and I got to idle at the track, worrying about what the foreman’ll say.  If I give some dummy my last smoke at the end of my shift, the store is closed when I stop to get more. It happened once, just like that, and a 7-fucking-Eleven, to boot.  Something about faulty wires.  I stood outside the door reading the sign and I was like, hell, you gotta be kidding me.  I ain’t making this shit up.

The first time I can remember knowing my luck was bad luck was when my grandpa died. Don’t start welling up with tears, y’all, because I didn’t give a rats ass about that old fucker.  He come to live with us when I was seven.  Smelled like cigarettes and whiskey and that cream you rub on your ass for hemorrhoids.  Or maybe like some kind of peppermints to cover the whiskey.  But it didn’t work.  His first order of business was ratting me out for wearing Carrie’s skirt around the house.  He told my daddy and I got whipped good.  Fucker.

Well, it weren’t like I was a faggot. I was just curious and I liked the way it felt. I ain’t going to lie. You get a lot more air on you in a skirt. Stand in front of the box fan, saying shit into it so you sound like a robot, letting the wind blow up nice and soft from underneath. That was the end of that.  I found an old smoking jacket Grandpa had brought with him, kind of fancy, black and silver with a sash. I had to ask what it was and now I look back on it, why’d he have it? Old redneck probably didn’t know what it was. He weren’t like those men in the movies, sipping out of them glasses that look like they’re for wine, but with a short stump and all kind of fat at the bottom like a balloon.  Probably got it in a flea market grab bag; they say my granny used to buy shit like that.

I wore that silver and black thing all the time.  It was long on me like a robe because I was a kid and I felt just as nice in it as I did in that purple skirt of Carrie’s that I worn.  But no one cared because it was made for guys; it weren’t a skirt.

What was I saying? Oh, luck. Hell, I ain’t got none.

So one night I got left at home with the old buzzard and that’s the night he went and died.  Out there in the kitchen, cooking peas or something, fell over and had hisself a heart attack. I was in my room and I didn’t know till I smelled something burning.  What a mess. Piss on the floor, smoke in the air.  He was too far gone. Purple.  You don’t forget skin what turns that color.

This is how I come to know luck ain’t for everyone.  I had a choice not to be home that night.  My friend Bart asked me to come over, but he’d been bragging about his new Nintendo and making rules about who got to play and how and for how long and I’d been about sick of that shit for well over a week.  So I said, no thanks, I’ve got stuff to do.  And all I did was sit in my room. I was so bored.  Then I smelled that smoke.

If I’d have gone to Bart’s house, I wouldn’t had to seen that old thing die.  I know it sounds heartless, but I just didn’t care. I told Carrie that once, when we started to date for real, and she said, well, why does that mean you ain’t lucky? You didn’t care that he was dead. And then she said besides, if you hadn’t been there, the house would’ve caught on fire and that would’ve been worse still.  She’s always got one more point to make than you asked for.

But then I said, yeah, but now I got the nightmares.  She looked at me, her hands dropping to her sides.  And I said, well, I got these nightmares.  They started the night before his funeral.  I’m always walking down our street and it’s just about dark.  When I look over my shoulder, cause you do in my part of town – all the fucking time – there he is, walking behind me, purple as the night he died on the kitchen floor.  And he don’t look mad and he don’t look happy, neither. He just looks kind of calm, like he knows something.  He’s watching me and whatever he’s got to say, it ain’t good, I can tell.  Twenty fucking years.

It don’t happen every night or else I’d kill myself, probably, and it don’t happen so much I can take pills or pot around it.  Not that I ain’t tried.  Carrie looked at me all funny when I told her about the nightmares.  It’s just a nightmare, she said, it don’t mean jack.  But she never saw his eyes, dark and gentle like they never were before, with something real sad and heavy in them.  It’s like he’s a weatherman, coming to say it’s gonna start raining but it ain’t never gonna stop, neither.  That’s bad luck, something Carrie just don’t understand, and it hangs on me, my thundercloud.

 

 

Revelations of an Abandoned Homestead

In the middle of the night, long after the witching hour, the traffic thinned and the highway quieted.  Then and only then could he hear the sounds that came from the other end of the house.  Some nights he glowered into the shadows and decided it was racoons nosing through the plaster, peering up from under the broken floor boards.  Other nights he rolled as quietly as he could over the floor, until he flattened along the wall, hoping to disappear into the shadows.  Those were the nights he thought it was madmen searching the empty rooms for him.  He was afraid even to breath, but his mouth moved in prayers he thought he’d forgotten.

He caught a glimpse of himself one full moon night, weeks ago, reflected in a shard of broken glass.  The eyes were shadowed like a skull and the hair and beard made him think of murderers people talked about when he was a boy.  Murderers in the news.  Murderers with a glint about them, who talked about themselves like they were making a mad poetry.  The face that passed the shattered window and then peered back once more was his own, he knew, but it was a face he’d hate to find hovering above him in the dark of the night.  His mother used to stroke the side of his face and call him her handsome boy.  He remembered it, though it was hard to believe.

One night when he was sure there were other men in the house – dark, brutal souls with evil in mind – he got himself in such a state that he started to cry.  His whimpers were terrifying sounds in the empty room.  When dawn finally broke, he was so relieved to see it, he bolted straight up and leaned out the window, drinking in the light on the distant mountains.

“Morning has broken!” he said, startling the birds out of the brush. There was thunder in his voice that made him think of preachers he’d known.  The words were from a song they learned in church.  He wept as he remembered the little white church in the valley, the murmur of women talking in the yard after service, the aftershave of the men, their deep voices and shiny shoes.  That had been a million years and sins ago.

He went to a corner mounded high with spray paint cans and beer cans and bottles, recalling nights he’d hidden under the house while the kids drank and flirted and fucked in these dark, forgotten rooms.  All his life he’d been a silent witness to ugly things, hiding in the shadows, watching and listening.

“Never again,” he boomed.  He loved the sound of his voice today, the way it had gone so deep and forceful.  It was the voice of prophets in his ear.  He found one can, tossed aside when headlights broached the drive one night and the kids ran out into the woods.  A cop had walked the front of the house, shining his light in the busted windows.  No one ever checked under the house.

He went to the wall across from the door, the door closest to the drive, the door that was no more – only a casing with marks where hinges had hung.  His hands shook as he wrote the words on the wall, but as each letter formed, he felt more sure of his purpose.  The paint was silver and shone in the light in a way that seemed holy to him.

“Blessed art those who keep my commandments.”

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Claudine

I cannot manage to sleep tonight.  Each time I begin to doze, I find my mind turning over the thing I heard last Sunday, when we had the new doctor to the house.  Obsessive thoughts are common when the year turns again to autumn.  The white witch of winter peers at us though the forest, promising mischief and isolation.  Last night I dreamed of bloody skulls and women hurling themselves into darkness.  I lay the blame wholly on the handsome young physician.

The doctor is a pleasant dinner companion, despite the rumors coming out of town about his coldness.  His manners are impeccable and he chooses his every word with care, which might be mistaken for a kind of stiffness, yet he has a gentle warmth that came through more and more as the evening unfolded.  He was fastidiously polite about the meal, although we had made nothing very special.  And he had many nice things to say about the house, though Agnes and I are the first to admit we’ve neglected it terribly these last years.

The most remarkable thing about his visit, though, would have to be the story he told.  It was about a woman he once met in a village in the south called Severance.  It took Agnes a while to understand him; she was sure he was saying St. Vance and there was entirely too much discussion about that.  By the time we all agreed it was an amusing mistake and that likely there was no saint by that name, the cocktails had lost their chill.  I think the doctor was shocked when I said the drinks were no longer laughing at us and we ought to toss them out and start anew.  After he left, Agnes said it made us look frivolous and I bit my tongue because there is nothing so tiresome and middle class as a rout when guests go home.

Before I get to the meat of the story, I had best say the doctor was very conscientious about his oaths as a physician.  He gave us a pretend name for the woman in the story, lest by some chance we should have ever heard of her.  He said we should call her Claudine Allard.  Agnes asked if we ought to construe that she was French and because it was not a bad question, I paused as I shook our new batch of drinks, as to hear the doctor’s reply.

“They were French enough,” he said.

That caused me to chuckle.  I could see it amused Agnes, as well, because her eyes flashed merrily as she accepted the fresh cocktail I held out to her.  She said, “My grandmother liked to say she was a Catholic and a Liberal, but first and foremost she was French.”

I took my place beside her on the sofa, keenly aware that our snug little den with the crackling fire was the perfect setting for ghoulish storytelling. There was a lively energy between the three of us and I felt happy we’d invited the young man.

“Please tell us your tale,” I said. “I promise Agnes and I will be good little children and not interrupt.”

“Speak for yourself,” Agnes said.

I wagged my finger at the doctor. “I should take that as a warning, young man. In twenty-seven years, I’ve never been able to stop her asking too many questions.”

“There are never too many questions,” she said.

The doctor settled back in his chair with a bit of color in his cheeks.  Perhaps our silliness was embarrassing to him, I thought briefly, but next he smiled and said, “I think Ms. Poe is delightful.  I myself have a love of curiosity.”

Wetting his throat with the cocktail, he unfolded his tale.

____________

“When I was through internship,” he began. “My father found me a job working in a surgery in this town I mentioned.  Severance.  It was a grim little place.  Never recovered from the picking over the carpetbaggers gave it.  Everywhere one looked, mills were grinding to a halt, cotton fields going to scrub.  My father had no notion the town was so poor.  A dear friend of his at university was their sole physician and he spoke of it with the love of a loyal native.  He wrote my father about the grand estates, the elegant manners of the meager old guard.  He never mentioned all the poor and dirty children, black and white, who were lucky to get a meal a day.”

“The doctor and I spent much of our time with the poor.  They were most of the population. I never complained to father. He’d have called me home to Boston immediately.  If I can say it without sounding a perfect horse’s ass, I had a poetic sense in the pink of my youth that I was doing the world a great service.”

He laughed at himself.

“In any event, perhaps I thought what I was seeing would teach me the true horrors of life and I’d return to New England, the prodigal son, to write a searing essay on the maladies of the South.  The nation would be called to action.  There would always be soup in the pot and cornbread in the oven when I was through.  At the very least, I thought I was helping in my way, day by day.”

He raked a hand through his curls.  I could tell by the gleam in Agnes’ eye she was quite smitten with him at that moment.  It was impossible not to be.  Nothing is so attractive in the young as a sense of righteousness. It can also make them ugly.  Still, I gave him an encouraging smile.

“Well, naivete may be the wart on noble intentions, but we ought not be judged by our warts alone.”

He smiled at me.

“From the first, I’d been hearing about this grand old place called Petit Lac.  It was different from the others, I came to find out, because the family had never gone broke in the civil war.  The same people – the Allard family – had owned it sense the land was little more than a swamp, they said, with Indian villages and the like. Although it was a mile away, on a clear day you could see its columns from the town.”

“Well, although one could see the poetry in the place from all that distance, I had little reason to ponder it much, what with trying to chase away fevers and patch up fingers busted on grist wheels.  Then one day my boss said he had a note from Petit Lac.  We were needed there immediately.  I still remember his wry tone as he pulled the note from his breast pocket and said, ‘It’s a royal summons, young man.  Take heed.'”

“When we got to the gates of the plantation, the sun was already smoldering low on the ridges.  There were three freedman on the bridge to the house, the soft earthen pass that allowed cars over the water.  They stopped us before we could cross.  I knew one of the men.  His name was Marshall.  I’d helped his daughter earlier in the year, when her leg was mangled in a harvester. We had to take it clean off, but she lived.  He glowed with sweat in the twilight, his smile the warmest thing I would see in the coming hours.  ‘Hello, doctor sir,” he said. ‘I hate to see you out here tonight.’

“I wasn’t sure of his meaning. His eyes dropped away from me, and he said, ‘We have to fix this here bridge, doctor sir. The culvert is cracked and we’re putting in a new one.  You’ll have to cross the lake on the little raft down below.’

“We parked my employer’s car on the road, took our leather cases and met the man who waited at the raft.  He was a quiet sort, his shape a tortured one, the spine quite twisted.  My mentor leaned in as we crossed, told me the name of the flu that had left the man in such a state.  His eyes in the dimming light were sad.  I remember how the crooked man looked against the orange twilight.  Despite his malady, he got us across swiftly.  The old physician seemed quite moody as we set off on foot again, so I  asked him questions about the history of the estate.

“He told me about a gory uprising between the Indians and the settlers as we walked.  They said a man came across the head of a native in the midst of the battle, so freshly cut from the neck that the eyes were still roving about with a glower of accusation.  Queerly enough, he laughed a little as he said, ‘The Indian head asked the man if he were the one who had cut him and by the time he composed himself enough to say he was not, the eyes had grown quite glassy.’

“When we got to the house, a dark woman in long, old-fashioned skirts led us down the gallery.  I was at last walking among those grand columns I had seen from town.  Even in the wan light, I could see what I had not guessed from afar.  The brick was in need of white wash and the floor boards were eaten here and there by vermin.

“We went through a set of glass doors opening onto a dark library.  Walnut shelves climbed fifteen feet into the air all around. There might have been tens of thousands of books.  They were so old, I knew at a glance the family must have bowed before devils to keep the collection safe during the war.  Unlike the other plantations I had visited in that year, this one owed none of its crumbling rot to the cruel hands of looters.

“The thing pulling this old place apart was simply neglect.  I knew that the moment I got a glimpse at the man laid on a bed at the center of the room.  The captain of this ship was all but dead.  The face above the brocade mantle was so creased and pale, I was sure I could glimpse each vein running beneath the skin, if only I had the light of day instead of dusk to aid me.”

At this point in his tale, I noticed Agnes shivering.  I stood and went to close the doors to the porch, but she stopped me.  “Oh, the goose bumps are lovely, Margaret.  Sit down and let him tell the tale.”

I may have rolled my eyes because she gave me that look, but I pretended not to notice and changed course only slightly, stoking the fire instead.  The young doctor glanced at us, his face as handsome in the rising light as the statues Greeks used to covet, but he carried on as though uninterrupted.

“When my mentor pulled away the old colonel’s covers, we could see all the more how wasted he was.  Our eyes met as they had before and if words could be printed on the cornea, ours would have born an identical print: cancer.  We ordered him tea and mixed a medicine to ease his suffering.  I allowed my eyes to roam the salon.  When I noticed the portrait over the hearth, I felt the breath leave my body.

“The woman in the painting was likely the most beautiful person I had ever seen.  Here I must confess that I had a brief love affair with art when I was younger still.  I connived to study painting and sculpture in Paris before I settled on a physician’s studies.  I was no stranger to the flattery a painter is capable of when he must pay his rent by the patron.  In this one, I recognized both the talents of a man who is well known to us all, but also I was convinced beyond a doubt of the honesty of the piece.  The woman in the painting, with her long honey hair and her dark, wretched eyes was not the compliment of a hungry artist.  Her beauty was her own possession.  I could sense the longing of the artist to portray it in every brush stroke.”

The young physician laughed at himself.  He said, “Well, I know I am sounding very dramatic.  But in the next moment, the woman herself appeared.  She stood in the doorway of the library, tall and proud, dressed in black as though she knew where the next days would land her: on the grim hillside plot where the rest of her clan was buried.

“She managed a little smile as she crossed to us.  She said to my mentor.  ‘How long does he have?’  I was shocked, I admit, by her blunt manner.  I glanced away, but I sensed she was watching me.

“‘My grandfather is in much pain,’ she said.  I cautioned a glance and met her eyes.  They were a lovely, pale brown when the light hit them.  The kind of brown that is almost green, like the rusty moss of the forest.

“The good old doctor administered his medicine and the patient lay still, though his pallor was a grey that would stay with him until the end.  The granddaughter left us for a bit.  I could not keep from peering at her painting.  When she returned a while later, she had troubling news.  ‘I’m afraid the bridge collapsed while the men were trying to secure the new culvert. Damned stupid of them not to quit when they’d lost the light. No one was hurt, thank heavens, but the raft was rather badly broken.  You’ll have to stay over the evening. We can get another one from up lake by morning.’

“There was nothing for it but to accept our fate.  Shortly after, we took dinner with her in a dining room far too large for three souls.  There were two hearths at either end, both of them roaring with good logs.  She sat at the head of the table in a familiar manner, as one who might have taken the liberty for a good while.  The food was rich and our wine glasses were kept quite full.  She told us amusing little stories, all the while fidgeting with her knife.  She laid it flat and spun it in circles on the mahogany top or else she held it straight up and down, the tip on her plate, turning it to see it glint in the fire light. I barely noticed her fascination with it at the time, but I recalled it later and have never forgotten it.

“There was something about her I found hard to fathom.  When we were in school and our masters talked about compassion, I knew only the meaning of the word.  Later I learned the feeling of it in all those sad little cottages of Severance.  I felt it most keenly one night when I held a dieing boy in one hand and the hand of his father in the other.  The father could not bare to touch the son just yet.  It is hard to describe how I felt about Claudine.  I did not know her, which might account for my lack of compassion, but still there was something about her that made sense of my coldness.  She was beautiful but ugly.

“Later the doctor and I were led to a set of guest rooms at the top of the old house.  Everywhere I looked, I could see the portraits and the traces of the men and women who called this place their home and who were now amongst the dead.  The damask on the walls was split open, fine gowns clinging to bones.  Up there the air itself smelled of rot.

“Though it was hard to feel at home there, I staved off my morbid fancies and managed a sort of half sleep.  Not long after I dozed away, I woke with a sense that someone was in the room with me.  I must have cried out in alarm, because her voice came to me, cold and clear.  ‘It is only I,  physician,’ she said. ‘Claudine.’

“‘Is something wrong with your grandfather?’ I asked into the shadows.

“‘Only himself,’ she said oddly.  Her voice was so miserable, I felt a shiver despite the warmth of the room.  Then she told me everything in an instant, unasked, as though the wave of her sad life had at last found a shore to break against.”

He blushed then, our young doctor, and Agnes and I exchanged a glance.  He continued, “I had never heard of the kind of things she told me.  Perhaps in the darkness, I was merely a priest and she at a kind of confession.  Her mother left Petit Lac when she was young.  She was an adventurer.  She wrote stories for magazines about travels all over the globe.  Her choices scandalized her family and the old colonel was known to tell his closest friends his daughter was dead.  But when the woman did in fact pass away – and left behind Claudine – he took his granddaughter in with the diligent haste of a fine old saint.

“Yet when his granddaughter became a young woman, when she flowered, as was his word for it – or the French word perhaps – something changed about the old man.  His gaze was different.  She said his eyes had a heat she could feel on her skin.  He brought her jewels from the vaults under the house.  He ordered gowns for her that caused the servants to look away when she wore them. He told her she was beautiful so often, she learned to hate her own reflection.

“I was horrified by how quickly I figured her meaning.  I thought about asking her to stop telling me.  At last she said into the darkness, ‘One night, I knew there was nothing left but to surrender. And so it has been these last years.'”

Agnes rose suddenly, setting aside her empty glass.  “I need to stand.  Please, continue.”

His eyes were now older than the rest of his pleasant face.  He hesitated and only when we prompted him did he carry on.

“She stopped after she told me the worst of it.  I didn’t know what to say and so we were silent for a while in that dark room.  Only a bit of moonlight, coming over her shoulder, told me that she sat near the window.  Finally, I said, ‘That’s monstrous,’ or something of the kind.

“She said, ‘He’s dead now.’

“I knew she spoke the truth.  Another silence stretched between us and at last, knowing nothing else to say, I murmured, ‘I’m sorry.’

“She heaved a sigh then, and I’m almost sure, but not absolutely convinced, she said, ‘Thank you.’  Then she stood and opened the window. I was still sitting up in the bed.  The chilly night breeze chased off the musty odor quickly.  For a moment I thought she only meant to air the room, but she stood there so long, I began to wonder if she had more to say. Then she did something quite astonishing.  The last thing she ever did.  She lifted a foot and stepped up into the window sill.  Without glancing back at me, she hurled herself out into the night without a cry.  I realized later she must have been praying before she jumped.

“I rose despite the futility of any action.  When I glanced down, she was twisted and bloodied on the stones below.  I told myself I would carry her secret, but yet I wondered if they would think I had pushed her.  Then another thought came to me and hastily, still shaken, I managed to dress myself and find my way to the bottom of the stairs.  Despite the gloom, I found the colonel’s library, lit one of the lamps on the desk, and carried it to his sick bed.”

He paused.  Agnes and I were silly with curiosity.  I cannot imagine two teenagers at the cinema any more foolish.  I sat forward.

“Yes?”

The doctor stood and braced himself on the hearth.  I could see he was trembling.  The mood of the room had changed. Hang the crackle of our little fire.  His face, as ashen as gravestone, chased away every thought of cheer.

“Before she came to my room to tell me of their wretched arrangement,” he said. “She had cut away his face, ear to ear, hair to chin, leaving only the skull to stare up to the ceiling.  I have turned myself inside and out trying to understand why.”

The physician is a gifted story teller, but despite her silly questions, my Agnes is the real scholar of the heart.  Without a pause, she answered the riddle, “So she’d never again see his face in the beyond.”

The doctor looked amazed and I must say he gave my Agnes a quite kindly hug when he went away that night.  As we drifted to sleep later, her voice cut our dark room.

“I wish I’d asked him if they ever found the face.”

My Agnes.  Her questions.