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Many Waters Cannot Quench Love; or, The Fall of the House of Lee

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Rosemary

To the east was born a girl, named Rosemary for remembrance. She had every luxury: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, friends—Rosemary wanted for nothing. Her parents loved her more than the sun or moon, more than the earth or sky, more than each other. The only thing they valued more was their own wealth and power.

That wealth and power was built on sand and lies, on crime, on drugs and murder. Promises were broken, secrets were told, and on Rosemary’s sixteenth birthday, on a late summer’s afternoon, the police stormed their house, just before the cake was to be cut. As the police took her father away he cried—

“Virtue, how frail it is!—
Friendship, how rare!—”

Rosemary and her mother were left with nothing. No more feasts, no more chefs. They were evicted from their house and could barely afford a clean hotel room. Their clothing was taken, their books. Their ‘friends’ were either victims of Rosemary’s father, or the children of fellow conspirators, hiding their guilt behind a veil of self-righteousness. Her mother had contingency plans, and decades worth of experience in self-preservation. Rosemary had almost nothing. Someday, she could marry well, even if her father could not redeem himself. She was beautiful, with golden skin and long black hair, thick and smooth. She was well-read, witty, and capable of sweetness, though she didn’t make a habit of practicing. Someday, she would make a good match.

But for now, her mother decided, she would be safer away from the city, away from the victims and conspirators. It had already been arranged, just in case the worse happened, and it had, Rosemary, don’t you appreciate my thoughtfulness? Far to the west, there was a small coastal town, and in that town, there lived a rich family with twins, a boy and a girl, just one year older than Rosemary. The Lees would keep Rosemary in almost the same luxury she was accustomed to, and all she would have to is keep the children company. If she was very lucky, maybe young John would take a liking to her. It was all taken care of, the train tickets bought. She would leave before the trial, come back once her father was free, and miss all the tragic business.

It did not escape Rosemary that her mother, for all her public protestations of innocence, all her wounded dignity, had clearly made the arrangements before her father was arrested. But Rosemary was relived and hopeful, as she rode the train from east to west. She vowed to fit in, to exercise her sweetness, to prove herself better than her father and mother both.

Rosemary disembarked from the train on the first day of fall. She waited on the station, watching the clouds move. She was irritated, but decided this was a good time to practice patience and graciousness, now that she had to.

The servant came after more than fifteen minutes, but less than an hour. In a hoarse voice, rough with tears, he apologized for his lateness, for today had been the funeral of young master John. Shocked, Rosemary asked what had happened, had there been an accident? Was there disease in the house? No, no, worse than that, the young man said, shaking his head and near tears again. He had disappeared from the lake over the hill, on an excursion with his sister, on the hottest day of summer. Just last week, he had been found by his sister on the beach, face crushed and waterlogged.

Rosemary’s knees weakened with shock. The servant apologized again, escorted her to their vehicle. Once he started to explain, he couldn’t stop. Everyone in town had known of John, and all who knew him had loved him, but no one had loved him more than his sister, Annabel, and no one had taken his death harder. Everyone in the house was glad Rosemary was coming, for Annabel needed company now more than ever. He shook his head as they drove onto the grounds, and said:

“Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.

No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town”

As soon as her feet met the ground again Rosemary was hustled off by the housekeeper. Her few things were sent up to the room, and she was sent up to the sun room.

The large windows and skylight let in as much sun as made it past the clouds, and mirrors amplified it so it was brighter inside than out. It was full of plants, and smelled of damp soil. In the middle, tending to a bush of past-season roses, was Annabel Lee.

Her hair was long, even longer than Rosemary’s, and bright copper-red, curling loose down her back. Her pale skin shone like the moon in the diffuse light, in sharp contrast to her pitch-black mourning dress. She looked up, and Rosemary saw her eyes were dark brown, and rimmed purple by the bruises and stains of sleeplessness. Her mouth was painted perfectly, shockingly red.

Rosemary walked to Annabel and introduced herself. Looking at this beautiful girl, a friendly smile was easier to conjure than she had thought on the horrifying ride from the station. Annabel stared, looking Rosemary up and down, then cut a rose from the bush and held it out, uncaring of the thorns, and said

 “The flower that smiles today
Tomorrow dies

Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone.”

For the space of a breath everything was still. Finally Rosemary reached out and grasped the rose. Their fingers touched around the stem, Rosemary’s smallest crossing over Annabel’s index. Annabel’s touch was surprisingly warm, and Rosemary was loath to pull away. But tug the rose away gently she did, and in the still quiet she could hear the smallest noise of pain from Annabel. Annabel spread her fingers, examined her hand then held it out again for Rosemary to see the small smear of blood against the bottom crook of her fingers.

Annabel

Annabel was born by the sea, just after the sun slipped below the horizon. Her brother John had come earlier, just when the sky had begun to blush. And so it was from then on. John was strong, beloved, sun-touched, golden. Annabel was strange, feared, dark and pale. This mirroring did not affect their bond: if anything their differences made each love the other more.

Not all their differences were nature. From the moment of their births, John was doted on. He was held whenever he wished, only had to cry for a moment before his needs were seen to. Annabel couldn’t even talk before she learned not to cry. When she was hurt, when she was afraid, John was the only living person she could count on.

The only living person…

From the day she was born, Annabel could see the ghosts. The Lee house was full of them. The ghosts of dead servants swept through the halls, ghosts of dead family chattered in the rooms. When the twins woke up fussing, and John was taken away, Annabel’s only comfort was her great-grandmother, and she was a poor comfort indeed. A cold breeze of insubstantial hands brushed her hot wet cheeks, and her great-grandmother sang,

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

Rosemary

These are the things Rosemary learned in her first three months by the sea: the Lee parents were as pale and red and strange as their daughter, and infinitely more threatening. Their smiles were empty, their words polished and insincere.

The marks around Annabel’s eye had not all been from sleeplessness. There was a new set of bruises almost every week, though never again on her face. They matched marks on her father’s hands.

The mansion was haunted.

Rosemary’s father had been a skeptical in public, but he did not believe in taking chances. If there was any chance the supernatural existed, he would have his family safe from it. So he let his wife practice her small charms and teach them to their daughter. Rosemary did not have the sight, but she could protect herself.

When she could not sleep the first night for whispers and chill breezes, she got up, relit her candle, took a vial of rock salt from her pack, and walked clockwise around the room. An unbroken line would be best, but she couldn’t risk the maids cleaning it up, and possibly reporting it to the Lees. Subtly marking the entrances would have to do. As she walked, placing salt on her mantle, on the top edge of her doorway, and on her windowsill she sang,

“I see the light, and I hear the sound;
I'll sail on the flood of the tempest dark,
With the calm within and the light around”

Annabel

It was midwinter when Rosemary finally asked. They were sitting in the sunroom, the only room that had any light this time of year. Even in the cool, cloud-shadowed light, Rosemary shone like gold. Annabel was so distracted by Rosemary’s hands on her embroidery, sure and deft, and by her brother’s whisper in her ear and cold hand on hers, she almost didn’t realize when Rosemary started talking. Casually, too casually to be anything but practiced, Rosemary asked if John was there. Annabel sucked in a sharp breath.

John sang,

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

Annabel could do nothing but tell the truth.

Rosemary

This was how it had happened: The twins loved the coast, the beaches and cliffs, but their favorite place was inland. It was a small lake in the hills, accessible only by foot, beloved for its secrecy. As she described the lake, the adventures they had there, Annabel’s face was as alive and animated as Rosemary had ever seen it. Her fingers stopped on her embroidery, and she was transfixed. Annabel was so swept away she sprang to her feet and began to pace and gesture as she spoke,

“So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.”

Perhaps, Annabel continued, looking anywhere but at Rosemary, John had been closer to her than a brother should be, but he was all she had, the only person who loved her. It was all innocence. They were going to run away, go far from their family, but their father found them by the lake, and caught her, beat her until her insides bled. John had run, and she had hoped—but he had come to her soon enough, and told her where to find his body. He could not leave until justice had been done. But their father controlled this town, the county sheriff, the traveling judge. There was no law here in the west high enough to stop him.

Her eyes were full of tears as she spoke, but none spilled. Her face was wrecked, vulnerable and pained. The sun begun to set as she spoke, setting Annabel aflame as she paced before the windows, “a splendour among shadows.”

Rosemary’s heart was overwhelmed with sympathetic pain and longing. Her heart beat fast as a chased rabbit, yet—“Yet that terror was not fright, But a tremulous delight—” she could sit no longer. Rosemary threw her needlework to the ground and stood. She stepped forward, one, two, three, and took Annabel in her arms, chest to chest, breath to breath. She raised a trembling hand to Annabel’s cheek, and whispered, voice full of all her twisted emotions, “Did He who made the lamb make thee?”

Annabel laughed with without humor, and raised her head, looking Rosemary eye to eye. Slowly she smiled like a fox, like an angel, like la belle dame sans merci.

“O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape,”

She said, and reached up to trace Rosemary’s lips. Rosemary kissed her fingertips helplessly. The summertime had nearly killed her, Annabel whispered, but fall had brought her life again.

That night they curled together in Rosemary’s bed, “two vipers tangled into one,” and formed their plan.

Annabel

It was done. Her father was dead, burned in his sleep. A tragic accident, the townsfolk said. The police weren’t equipped to investigate. The house smoldered for a week, but the sunroom was unscathed.

John had left without Annabel noticing, elbow deep in their father’s blood, but at least she wasn’t alone.

The first night of spring, they stayed up late, watching the fall of the sun, the rise of the moon. Rosemary’s parents had written, telling her it was safe to return. She had written back, refusing.

At midnight, Annabel drew out a knife. She said as she cut across their palms,

“The deathless stars are bright above;
If I would cross the shade of night,
Within my heart is the lamp of love”

Rosemary pressed their hands together, wound to wound, blood to blood, and vowed:

“And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”