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The Hinge of the Year

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11 December 19—

Dear diary, I am pleased to report that the most exciting thing that happened today is not another iteration of the nighttime disturbances. Rather, a new washerwoman has come.

She is young, as young as I, and has a look equal parts haunted and haunting in her amber-colored eyes. She has brought a milk goat with her, a gentle yet imperious creature, as snow white as the sweet, fatty milk she gives abundantly. The goat seems content to crop the dying grass in the back garden. I can hear her owner singing sweetly as she goes about her work and I write this. The sounds of splashing water mingle with her song till I can almost believe that I am sitting in a forest glade, by a rushing brook, with many songbirds festooning the trees, rather than in my office, which used to be the Marquis’ private library.

I do not know where the washerwoman is from, or how she learned that we had a position open.

After the Marquis’ death, I dismissed all of his staff, from the hatchet-faced housekeeper down to the skinny girl who was the cook’s helper and the undergardener’s sullen boy. In the thirteen months which have elapsed since my husband’s sudden demise, the castle’s transformation into a school for the blind has happened piecemeal, in fits and starts, as though I were sewing our lives back together like a patchwork quilt.

As my late husband’s sole heir – thankfully his poisonous line yielded but the one fruit in its last generation – I was free to sell off most of the castle’s treasures: the silverware and Sèvres and Limoges porcelain, the heavy, antique furniture, the family jewels, including the blood-ruby choker and the opal wedding ring that were once, briefly, mine to enjoy but not to own. The Marquis’ collection of antique erotica was sold discreetly to connoisseurs as far afield as Shanghai and Johannesburg. The portraits of the Marquis’ ancestors were snapped up at a public auction, in what the newspapers called a vicious bidding war between an American robber baron and an English earl with a known taste for the exotic and the depraved. The earl even wrote to me, offering me a considerable sum for the contents of my husband’s secret chamber: the catafalque, the Iron Maiden, the Etruscan vases.

Politely I informed him that those accoutrements of pleasure in death had been melted down, burned, or buried, and so would remain beyond the reach of the earl’s pocket book. Undoubtedly miffed at the mocking tone I could not quite keep from my pen, he never replied.

Even after Jean-Yves and I gave away most of the money to various worthy charities, we had enough left over to fund our educational establishment and of course an empty castle in which to house the school. Staffing it proved the true challenge, so we often have resorted to employing just about anyone willing to work in such a place and for such people as us: the scandalous widow with the mark of a blood-red heart on her brow and her new consort, the blind piano tuner.

Père Lachaise, the priest who taught my second husband the piano-tuner’s trade, crosses the causeway three days a week at low tide, to teach the children arithmetic and catechism, those two well-tempered systems for ordering the world. A young and pretty teacher of French and German arrived in response to my ad in the Paris Gazette. Naturally, I instruct the children in music myself. As to household staff, they tend to come and go, arriving on recommendation from other servants, with ads torn out of provincial newspapers tucked away in their pockets or purses, clutching character references written on their behalf by the governors of orphanages, workhouses, even an asylum or two. Some are little better than drifters – they work for a day or a week, collect their wages, and leave.

Thus I was not shocked to descend to the kitchen this morning, intending to discuss with Madeleine, the latest cook, the preparations for the little Christmas feast we would lay on for the children before they left for the holidays, only to hear someone bustling around the laundry room.

For a moment, I mistook the washerwoman moving about the laundry for the Marquis, and a cold wind blew over me at the thought that he has begun venturing away from the upper reaches of the castle – his former library, our bedroom, the passage leading to his secret chamber – and has begun haunting the servants’ quarters as well, and in broad daylight! But then the goat made her presence known by bleating cantankerously in the kitchen yard, and I remembered that I have never read a ghost story with a goat in it.

When Madeleine introduced us, the washerwoman gripped my hand in hers and shook it firmly. Her hands were oddly soft and smooth for a member of her profession, and her frank, assessing gaze held none of a career servant’s socially-dictated and nearly-instinctual deference. Yet she seems to grapple with the mountains of laundry produced by a handful of adults and a few dozen children with stoic persistence. We shall see how she fares when the winter finishes roosting on the castle’s rooftops, and wet laundry hung out to dry turns to hard planks creaking in the sea wind like a scaffold being trodden on by those about to die.

I hope she stays at least till Michaelmas.

 

14 December 19—, early

I was woken an hour ago by the oppressive scent of Russian leather. It filled the bedroom, the one I share with Jean-Yves, like a noxious gas meant to smother us in our sleep.

I rose quietly, covering my mouth and nose with my nightgown, my eyes watering, and lit a candle. I did not wish to risk turning on a light, though the electricity was likely out. The electric company claimed that lines could be broken or poles knocked down by fierce coastal winds, but we never used to have problems with our electrical supply before the apparition began to manifest itself a month ago, around the anniversary of the Marquis’ death.

I checked on Jean-Yves, but he slept peacefully, as though his sleeping self detected nothing more troubling than the clean, salty air that always filled the castle.

Wrapping myself in my mother’s old Indian shawl and shielding my candle with my hand, for the castle’s corridors and chambers were always full of drafts, I checked the library and the spiral staircase leading up to my marital bedchamber – now a mundane storage room – in a turret perched over the crashing Atlantic. Nothing, no ghostly apparition or unusual presence, more sensed than seen.

Only when I crept past the chambers which now served as the children’s dormitories and descended the stairs to the great hall, sniffing experimentally, my feet chilled on the ancient flagstones despite my carpet slippers, was I able to find him. Or whatever he was now, in death, the monster transformed by the cessation of its existence.

The Marquis’ perennial scent of tobacco, Russian leather, and spices nearly choked me as I followed its waxing intensity to the narrow passage leading to the chamber of horrors, emptied out and sealed up like a clam. I breathed through my mouth and raised the candle, trying to penetrate the thick gloom and catch a glimpse of him, the edge of his cape rounding a corner, the flash of his smile in the heavy, wax-pale mask he had used as a face.

He was dead, I knew he was dead because I had watched my mother kill him, and I knew myself fortunate in that narrow escape, yet still I longed for a glimpse of him. He had changed me, as surely as though he had swallowed me whole like Chronos eating his children and then birthed me a second time. I was still feeling my way to being this new person: the wife and teacher, the mistress of the Castle of Murder, the marked harlot, the merry widow, the penitent Magdalene.

I found no ghost lingering before the sealed chamber, only the new washerwoman crouched low on the floor, inspecting the great nails hammered in to keep the door sealed to the doorframe.

On hearing my approach, she stopped running her fingertip over the massive nail heads, as though she were inspecting mushrooms she was about to pick, stood swiftly, and raised her candle.

We inspected each other by the twin, wavering lights of our candles. I could breathe more easily, as though the Marquis’ ghost had been scared away by the presence of two living women near his true and natural abode.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded, trying to put steel in my voice and my spine. I was the mistress of the castle, and she was a trespassing servant, yet her uncanny eyes told me the truth: this woman was more than she appeared to be.

“I felt his presence and followed it down here,” she said as though we were discussing the weather or the price of butter.

I did not know what to say. I wanted answers, I wanted reassurance, I wanted counsel. I missed my mother.

I had never felt like the heroine of my own life, yet this woman, this young woman with her eyes that seemed to pierce every veil and her air of calm knowing, she looked like she might be a hero in her life. Though I still bridled at her presumption, her placidity in the face of my annoyance, I wished instinctively to reach out and take her hand.

I did not, for she lowered her candle and touched, a bit self-consciously I thought, the thin, colorful scarf which I had noticed she wore around her neck, and which she seemed not to take off even when she slept.

“We should speak on the morrow,” she said, still adjusting her scarf. “I doubt he will bother anyone else tonight.”

And with that, she passed by me without even a goodnight or a by-your-leave, her feet soundless on the flagstones, the air displaced by her body making my candle flame flicker briefly. Then she was gone, and I had little choice but to keep solitary watch over the sealed chamber while my feet turned to ice or to go back to bed.

I returned to my room. Jean-Yves did not wake at my return, or at my scribbling all this down by candlelight, nor do I suppose he will wake when I rejoin him in our marital bed.

 

14 December 19—, later

After breakfast had been cleared away and the cacophony of children’s voices had been dampened behind closed classroom doors, I lingered over the school and household accounts. Then I worked through a few days’ worth of correspondence. Then I drew up a list of items which still needed to be purchased for the Christmas celebrations.

Finally, after I had refused a maid’s offer of a lunch tray being brought up to me, I had no more pressing tasks which could shield me from what must happen: I rose from my mahogany desk, which had been the Marquis’ desk before, I put on my coat and warm woolen scarf, and I went down to the kitchen yard.

The washerwoman had just brought out a large basket full of bed sheets and had begun stringing them along the network of clothes lines, like ill-lucked ghosts captured in some magician’s web.

She held out a bundled sheet when she saw me: “With two of us working, we’ll be done more quickly and may warm ourselves in the kitchen.”

I disliked her tone and the amused curl of her lips, but I would not look a useless little bourgeoise in front of her. I had forgotten my gloves, and my hands protested at the touch of ice-cold, wet sheets. I noticed and took a bit of mean pleasure in the sight of the washerwoman’s hands, so soft and pale just a few days ago, already turning red and chapped by the vicissitudes of her work.

She was right in that we hung up all the sheets very quickly, urged along by the wind coming in off the sea, and the kitchen fire burned merry and bright when we retreated inside. Madeleine was busy in the pantry, and the maids were serving the children and the teachers their pudding.

We were alone, sitting side by side on the bench before the grate, clutching mugs of tea and stretching our legs out so the fire would warm our toes.

“What are you doing here? Did a newspaper send you to ferret out another scandal?” I demanded without preamble. I wanted to ask her another dozen questions: Who are you? What brought you here? Can you help me? I swallowed those down with my tea and watched her face.

She kept her profile to me: the smooth brow, the pug nose, the proud chin, the long throat wrapped in the eternal scarf. It occurred to me that she was assembled out of a handful of attributes, as the Marquis had been, and that I would forever after associate any one of those elements with them. I could never again smell a Cuban cigar or hear a Wagner aria without thinking of my husband. I would always think of this woman when I saw a colorful scarf around a long, slender neck, and I did not even know her name.

“My only connection to the newspapers is what I read in them about your husband’s death. Pardon me,” again she smiled that infuriating smile, “your first husband’s death. I was… Let us say I was drawn here.”

She seemed to hesitate, and I asked, a trifle harshly: “Drawn by what? Or whom?”

She turned to face me then, and my breath caught at the sight of the flames dancing, reflected, in her eyes the color of amber and cognac. She untied her scarf and loosened it, till it fell to drape itself coquettishly over her clavicles and revealed the pale column of her throat and a mark on it, like the livid trace of a cruel lover’s lips.

I nearly dropped my mug in shock, for though its shape and color were different, it looked eerily like the perfect red heart which marked my brow.

“I once had a lover who meant to do me grievous harm,” she explained, holding my gaze with hers. “He had harmed many women before me, but I didn’t know any better until it was almost too late. I stopped him just in time, for sometimes the price of love must be its sacrifice. I think I can help you too. Unless,” she added, covering her throat again, her voice taking on an arch tone, “you like having your pupils frightened out of their wits and their sleep disturbed by your husband’s lingering presence.”

I stood abruptly, spilling a little lukewarm tea on my gown. Before I could say something sharp to her, the door leading out to the yard was nudged open to admit the white goat. It trotted up to the hearth and stood warming itself, watching us with its yellow imp’s eyes, still chewing a mouthful of winter grass.

“Is she a real goat?” I asked. “Or is she your familiar?”

The washerwoman’s laugh was high and fluting: a young girl’s laugh. I was startled again to realize that we must be of an age, both of us so young still and yet so aged by our troubles, like stones worn down with persistent, pelting rain.

“She used to be my lover’s nanny goat. She had suckled him and cared for him, yet when I strangled him to death she followed me out of his forest home and has not left my side ever since. I suppose she decided I was as good a companion as any, for the time being.”

Or she decided to love this strange, fearless woman, I thought but did not say. My throat closed up at the thought of such a love.

“I did not kill the Marquis,” I whispered. “My mother saved me. She thought me a fool for thinking I could make this castle into a place of light and laughter. I thought she would never die, but I buried her this past spring.”

I ducked my head, to hide my flaming cheeks, my watering eyes. The washerwoman made no gesture of comfort, but her tone was low and warm when she spoke: “I am not your mother, but I do have some experience with tender monsters. Will you accept my help?”

I wanted to say yes, that I had been waiting for her since before I was first married. I wanted to tell her no and to leave the castle at once with her goat. I wanted to lay my head in her lap and weep, and I wanted to rage at the sun for not setting sooner, so that we might perform the exorcism she proposed at once.

I turned and fled the kitchen without another word.

 

16 December 19—

The Marquis roused the whole castle in the small hours of the morning.

The children were sent into hysterics by the adult scents which filled their dormitories and a low, evil chuckle echoing down the corridors. Mlle Chauve the language teacher claimed she’d been frightened by a man appearing then vanishing in the girls’ washroom, and Jean-Yves could not stop trembling as he described to me a nightmare in which he had watched a parade of strangers ravaging me on the bed we shared while I held out my arms for the next one and cried out: “More! More! Oh I burn, I burn!”

Though it was not a day for catechism and arithmetic lessons, Père Lachaise came for lunch and suggested gravely that we should write to the Archbishop and request that a professional exorcist be dispatched from Rome to our aid.

I moved my fish and potatoes around my plate and kept thinking about my mother’s death. Demeter had got her daughter back in the springtime, but I buried my mother when the bluebells bloomed, and I could have sworn even then that I heard the Marquis chuckling softly, while the servants festooned the castle with black crêpe and the villagers whispered about a curse descending upon the castle at the death of the old line’s last scion. They could tolerate a feudal lord who hunted their daughters for sport and murdered wife after wife, but they could scarcely abide the local seat of power passing into the hands of a slip of a Parisian girl.

I stood abruptly, interrupting the priest’s flow of soft words, but I lacked the patience for apologies. “I must see about the laundry,” I said. “It is urgent.”

I found the washerwoman turning the crank on the mangle, the excess water dripping loud as a piano out of tune into a tin tub at her feet. She straightened and wiped her brow when she saw me. Her cheeks were flushed with her exertions.

I motioned for her to allow me to take her place and grasped the mangle’s crank, turning it viciously, as though I could wring the Marquis’ ghost from the castle. “I need some guarantee that you are telling the truth and can rid us of him.”

She shrugged, waggling her ten fingers slowly as though she were casting a spell, but I knew she was merely working sensation back into them. She was starting to get chilblains, I saw.

“My presence here is all the guarantee I can offer you,” she said. “Anyway, it does not matter what you know or don’t know about me. Do you believe that I can help?”

I stopped working the mangle and looked her in the eye. “I have no choice but to believe you.”

The words were wormwood in my mouth: it seemed that I have never had much choice, not in anything that mattered. Daughter, wife, foolish girl.

She shook her head, looking annoyed. “I do not know this monster as I knew the other one. I will need your help if we are to have a prayer of success.”

I breathed deeply, leaning over the mangle, irritated beyond words at how quickly the work took my breath away, and watched her. She watched me in turn, as placid and self-contained as her goat.

I took a leap of faith and hoped that I would not be broken to pieces when I landed. “Shall we try tonight?”

She shook her head again, more gently, her eyes turned distant, assessing. “The solstice is in five days’ time. Things do not fit together as well as they should, then, and a ghost may be banished through one of those cracks.”

 

21 December 19—

Solstice: the door of the old year yawns open on its hinge, and anything might slip through.

I have sent everyone away two days before the Christmas holiday was due to commence. The servants and teachers were given no explanation, only clear instructions to finish up their work and pack their trunks within the day. My stern mien prevented any expressions of curiosity or indignation at the peremptory announcement. Most of them dislike seeing the crimson mark on my forehead, so they avoid also looking me in the eye.

Jean-Yves has gone with the children, to chaperone them as they are dropped off with their families and look after the few whose relatives live too far away or care too little to take the children for the holidays. To tell the truth, I suspect he is relieved to be out from underfoot. I did not share my plans with him, but he has never felt entirely comfortable living in the castle, and his nerves have suffered tremendously from the nighttime visitations.

He has a pure heart, but he would be no use against a malignant spirit.

With only the washerwoman left for company, I spent the morning assembling everything she claimed we might need to perform a banishing tonight. We lunched on cold meat and cheese, standing side by side in the kitchen, then she suggested we should try to sleep for a few hours, before the longest night of the year.

I lay alone in the bed I shared with Jean-Yves, but sleep eluded me. My thoughts looped around in circles like heat-maddened swallows, alighting now on my memories of the Marquis, now on the washerwoman. I imagined her asleep in her narrow cot in a cupboard off the laundry. I remembered the flames dancing in her eyes that day in the kitchen, the livid mark on her throat. I was overcome by a sudden, spine-thrilling desire to sink my teeth into that spot, taste her skin and blood, feel her breath hitch and her body buck against mine.

During our brief marriage, the Marquis had awoken in me a hitherto-unsuspected capacity for debauchery, but he had not lived long enough to truly mold me into the woman of his violent dreams, and Jean-Yves was more boy than man still.

With only momentary hesitation, I tucked my hands under the covers, out of the cold air. I ran my hands over my face, my neck, my breasts, my belly, between my legs. I imagined hands covered in chilblains, rough with hot water and carbolic soap and winter wind. Unbidden, the memory assailed me of my husband breaching me, and I loathed the memory yet I grew wetter as well, my body quaking between memory and fantasy. I shuddered and sighed, unstitched and prised apart by another’s hands I imagined handling me, amber eyes burning above me, and soft, beardless lips curled in a smile brushing my forehead.

I do not know why I have written this down. Perhaps some traitorous part of me wishes someone would find this diary and read it, someone with eyes that can see and read.

My hands are scented still with my pleasure. The thick, marine smell of it fills the room, and I find that I prefer it to lilacs or Russian leather.

I think I shall return to bed until night comes.

 

22 December 19—

I used to think that the Marquis’ secret room was the kingdom of the unimaginable, a space beyond this world and yet entirely of it, made up of the undisguised flesh and blood and bone of the world. Now I know, I sense all around me, the true unimaginable: he is gone entirely, the castle is emptied of his presence, like a snail shell after its occupant has withered away.

An hour before midnight, we descended to the sealed-up chamber, bearing rowan berries and silver coins, sea salt and clean water in a glass flask, a piece of white silk and a shallow silver dish left over from the family hoard I’d sold off, and two axes.

We broke open the door, grunting and swinging our axes like a pair of madwomen. The stale air which escaped from the chamber smelled of cold stone and the faint memory of old blood and lingering corruption.

Only upon stepping through the breach our axes had made and lighting a dozen candles around the chamber did we see that we were not alone. I should have guessed that emptying the room of its contents and sealing it up would make it an ideal home for his lingering spirit.

The boundary could not be discerned, if one existed at all, between his dark clothes and the shadows clustered thickly in the chamber. His pale face floated above his body like his second wife’s skull, which had once hung suspended in the center of the chamber. He spoke, or perhaps the wind sighed especially loudly through the castle, and though I could not pick out individual words, I would have known his voice anywhere.

“Don’t listen to him,” the washerwoman spoke in my ear.

I started. I had forgotten she was there. Her hand was warm and rough on my wrist, and she pushed something – the silver dish – into my hands. “Hold this steady while I fill it with water.”

I will not describe the ritual we performed, the secret words the washerwoman murmured, how the Marquis flitted around us like a gigantic bat, neither able to touch us nor willing to depart and cease tormenting us. Some things should not be written down.

“It’s no use,” she said, deep into the night. “He is not mine. You have to banish him.”

“I don’t know how,” I all but sobbed. I felt weak and foolish, a creature of indeterminate lusts, and the Marquis was laughing at me, his scent filling my nostrils.

The old year was hinged open, and anything might slip through, in or out of the world.

“Hello, husband,” a melodious voice spoke from the darkest corner of the bloody chamber.

“Hello, my very dear,” a second voice, bearing still the accent of the Paris gutter, spoke up from another corner.

A third voice finished the greeting in a language that sounded like French as spoken by rocks.

They slipped between the real and the unseen, clothed in the shadows which had swallowed them the very moment that the Marquis had put the opal ring on their fingers. The evening star walked still along the rim of night, never venturing into the candlelight, just barely visible beyond it, pale and translucent. The Romanian countess’ cheeks glowed with a simulacrum of life, and her eyes glittered like jewels in the candlelight. And the opera singer was a woman made of smoke and reflected light, swathed in silk veils the color of naked flesh.

The Marquis seemed to barely notice them as they surrounded him and hid him from view, their three pairs of hands passing over him like swords caressing him, cutting him to ribbons. I experienced a sensation as though a great battle were being waged just beyond the edge of my hearing, great wings beating in the air all around me, then a silence as absolute as death descended on the chamber. We two living ones stood alone and could sense no other presence but us.

We left the candles to burn themselves out, the silver dish of water and the circle of salt and the crushed rowan berries littering the floor, and returned to the kitchen, where a fire burned in the grate. We had left it as a talisman to ensure our safe return. Now it served to boil water for tea while we sat again on the bench before the hearth.

“The countess wrote to him that the supreme pleasure of love is the certainty that one is doing evil,” I said when the silence began to feel oppressive.

“Baudelairean nonsense,” came the tart reply.

I remained pensive: “I suppose, in the end, they wanted him for themselves, despite everything.”

The washerwoman shrugged. “Birds of a feather. You never would have fit in with them.”

I felt equal parts stung and relieved at her assessment of me, which I hoped and prayed would prove more accurate than the Marquis’ had been. Though we had not banished the Marquis ourselves, merely made it possible for his brides to return and claim him, I felt bold enough to rest my mug of tea on the floor and take the washerwoman’s hand, thrilling to the touch of her roughened skin, her long fingers and short nails.

“Will you stay?” I asked, watching the flames dance in her eyes, my heart thudding.

She weighed her words carefully, like pearls on a jeweler’s scales. “I cannot promise forever. I may be summoned away. We are altered by those we love enough to let them do us harm, and the world is full of monsters.”

I squeezed her hand. “I do not ask for forever. Stay for a while, at least. Or take me with you when you leave.”

She laughed. “You would abandon all this?”

She was mocking me again, a little, but I did not begrudge it when I could laugh with her. “I have some money and almost no patience left for being the local scandal. I suspect Jean-Yves could run the school just fine with Mlle Chauve’s help.”

Her smile turned softer, though her eyes still glittered in challenge as she covered my hand with hers, the one I did not already hold fast. “And what skills, pray, have you for slaying monsters?”

“None. But I am young and will learn, and we are better off if we stay together.”

Dear diary (or you, my dear, if you are reading this!), she teased me some more, but she agreed eventually that I was right.