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I was there when he took his last breath, and God forgive me, I captured it within the soul glass …
Monsieur Etienne had been ill for days. His ragged breath tore through the room, until I could scarce breathe myself. I longed to throw open a window, to air out the sour odour of sickness and sweat; but his wife, Madame Charlotte, would not hear of it.
Sometimes I’d yearn to breathe into his mouth, slowly and steadily, for surely I had enough breath for us both. But I didn’t dare. Not only because the infection could spread to me, but also because it would be entirely improper. As a mere governess, it was not my place.
He fell ill shortly after having visited a friend whose child was sick. He announced the next evening that he was feeling unwell and took to his bed. Soon, his whole body was wracked with pain and fever. Over the course of a few days, a thick, grey membrane formed at the back of his throat which impeded his ability to swallow and breathe. It hurt my heart, hearing him struggle to get air into his lungs.
At the first sign of Monsieur’s illness, Madame sent her children to visit their grandparents in Avignon. I was not permitted to accompany them, for I’d sat with Monsieur in the parlour the evening he’d announced he was unwell. The house, usually filled with the voices of children, was gutted by silence. With my duties suspended and worry consuming me, I paced the hallways, lingering by Monsieur’s door. I begged Madame to let me attend to him, but she refused. Only Monsieur’s steward, Philippe, was allowed to do so.
But I disobeyed Madame. Each night I stole into Monsieur’s room with a basin of cool water scented with dried lavender.
As I opened his chamber door, the light from my candle teetered and cast shadows across the walls. Attired only in my nightdress, I sat in the chair by his bed and rested the metal basin in my lap, feeling its coldness against my thighs. I gazed at him – his eyes closed, black curls on his forehead damp with fever. He muttered in his sleep, his voice hoarse and pained:
“Charlotte … too bright … Charlotte …”
The taste of jealousy soured my mouth and then I reproached myself for it. After all, it was only natural for him to long for his wife during his time of need. Soon disdain displaced my jealousy. Why wasn’t she here then, by his side, attending to his comfort? But I knew the answer – Madame and everyone else, was too afraid. I couldn’t explain why this fear was absent in me. Perhaps my love was stronger. More likely, it was because I possessed the soul glass and knew I could use it if things got worse for Monsieur.
I dipped the cloth into the basin, soaked it with scented water then placed it on Monsieur Etienne’s forehead. Within minutes he calmed noticeably. I wet the cloth again and again and placed it upon his brow. He mumbled something then quite suddenly called out in a broken voice:
“Charlotte … Charlotte …”
I shushed him, then wrung out the cloth and blotted his face, longing to run my fingertips upon his eyes, his cheek, his lips …
“What are you doing here?”
Madame’s voice startled me so badly that the basin overturned and the water splashed my nightdress. I stood up from the chair, feeling an overwhelming sense of shame. I forced myself to meet her gaze and tried not to look as guilty as I felt.
She stood like an apparition by the door, dressed in her white nightgown, her hair a golden cascade of curls beneath her nightcap. Her eyes gleamed viciously in the light of the candle she carried.
“Forgive me, Madame, you startled me. I thought some cool water might help bring down his fever.”
“The physician will be here in the morning.”
“Yes Madame, but I thought there’d be no harm in –”
“I would have you think of your own health, Mademoiselle Lamont. Surely, you’ll wish to resume your duties as governess, once my husband recovers and the children return?”
“Of course, Madame –”
“Then you should be more cautious. And refrain from exposing yourself. Needlessly.”
Her words dropped upon me like stones, each one heavy with insult and double meaning. In that moment I realised that she recognised the feelings that I harboured for her husband. As carefully as I’d tried to hide the nature of my affection for him, she’d unearthed my secret. I felt naked beneath her gaze and crossed my arms over the wet nightgown that clung to my breasts.
“Yes, Madame. I’ll just clean this up first.”
I thought she’d return to bed and that I’d have a few more moments alone with Monsieur, but instead, Madame hovered by the door and watched as I sopped up the spilled water and swept up the scattered lavender blossoms. Finally, we both left her husband’s bedchamber.
That night, I slept very little; I kept remembering how my fingers and Monsieur Etienne’s forehead had been separated by only a thin scrap of cloth. It was the closest I’d ever come to touching him. If only he knew how much I longed for him! He’d always spoken to me kindly and seemed to take a sincere interest in my thoughts; it was this, more than anything, that made me fall in love. It took all my self-control to hide the illicit joy I took in his company. I knew my feelings transgressed all propriety. I also knew that he did not feel the same way toward me. While I was as seductive as schoolroom chalk, Charlotte’s beauty and charm glittered like the jewels she wore. Monsieur adored her, always brought her gifts and found any excuse to touch her. The way he looked at her, especially when she didn’t know he was watching, tore my heart. More than anything, I wished that one day he’d look at me in that same way.
And now he was ill, and might not survive. I could not bear the thought.
Slowly, I got up, opened my little travelling case and withdrew the green velvet pouch. I could see the outline of the soul glass within it. Loosening the drawstrings, I reached inside, grasped the handle and pulled it out.
It seemed unremarkable – a lady’s hand-mirror that looked as if it hadn’t been used in ages. Tarnish blackened the mirror’s silver frame. The lining behind the glass had become so thin that only patches remained. When I peered into it, all I could see was a scrap of my nose, mouth and chin and a sliver of my left eye. The rest of the mirror remained an oval of dark glass. It had been passed through many generations and my father always reminded me that it was a treasure beyond compare.
“This mirror, ma petite, is very, very old and very, very special.” He’d shown me the mirror when I was seven years old. I remember that day clearly. It had been raining for a week and I’d been beside myself with boredom, trapped in the house with little to do. I’d taken to tormenting the cat by tying spoons to its tail and watching it run around the house. Papa called me to his study. I thought he was going to punish me. Instead, in the dim room, crammed with books and filled with the scent of leather bindings and pipe smoke, Papa took out the green velvet pouch from the bottom drawer of his rosewood desk. He showed me the mirror.
“What’s that, Papa?” I asked, climbing into his lap.
“It’s a mirror, cherie, made for a great lady in Venice almost three hundred years ago. Her husband loved her dearly and they had eleven beautiful children together. They were all very, very happy. Then in 1576 a terrible sickness overtook the city. Thousands of people died and the streets were filled with corpses. Men in tarred coats and masks like the beaks of giant birds took the dead away. Soon, the great lady’s children became sick. One by one they fell to the horrible illness that made them cough and vomit blood and caused large, painful swellings to appear on their little necks and under their arms.”
I remember trying to imagine it happening to me and wondering how much it would hurt.
“Did they die?” I asked, and drew closer to Papa, snuggling my face against his shoulder. He smelled like lavender fields, tobacco and the crystal decanters on the silver trolley in the corner of the room.
“Yes, cherie, they did. The great lady brought each sick child to her bed chamber so that she could look after them and make sure they were comfortable. It was also to keep their brothers and sisters safe. But –” and here Papa sighed deeply, “nothing seemed to help. They all died and the great lady was ravaged by grief. She tore her hair, and refused to eat. Her eyes became a fountain of tears as she mourned the loss of each of her precious children. Her husband tried to comfort her but she was inconsolable. When the first child died, he covered all the mirrors in the house, for it was known that uncovered mirrors could trap the souls of those who had died. The souls’ memories would fall away like ashes and they’d float, alone and helpless in a dark world crowded with shadows. Far from God’s light, their eternity would be bottomless and silent. So you can see how important it was for the mirrors to be covered; and in the great lady’s house all of them were shrouded with cloth except this little hand-mirror that lay upon her dressing table. Somehow it had been overlooked. Each time one of her children’s souls passed through the mirror, a little of the lining wore away and more of the dark glass showed through.”
I touched the patches of silver that were left, the glass cool against my fingertips.
“Then the great lady fell ill. Her husband remained with her the whole time, spooning milk and honey into her mouth, cooling her fever with wet cloths, comforting her with words and songs, nursing her as she had nursed her children. One day, however, the great lady grew very still. In a panic, the husband grabbed the mirror from her dressing table and held it to his wife’s lips to see if her breath would flush the glass and prove she was still alive. As he did so, the great lady’s soul left her body with her last breath and entered the mirror. Her husband, devastated by the loss of his love, wept until he lacked the strength to shed another tear. Nearly mad with grief, he held the mirror again to his wife’s lips, hoping he’d been wrong and that her breath would fog the glass. When he saw that she had indeed died, he heaved a huge sigh of despair … and that’s when it happened.”
“What?” I asked, enthralled by the story.
“Now this is very important, so I want you to pay attention,” he said, and I sat up straight and looked into his eyes.
“When the husband sighed, his soul was so heavy with the love for his wife, that it entered the mirror and expelled the great lady’s soul from the glass. Her soul left the mirror like a thin stream of smoke and re-entered her lips. Her lungs filled with air and her heart started beating once again. His love for her was so great that it saved her.”
“Just like she loved her babies,” I said. “Did she use the mirror to bring back her children, Papa?”
“No, cherie, she couldn’t. They had been dead too long, their souls had already been absorbed by the dark glass. A soul could only be expelled from the mirror while the ember of life burned hot and before stiffness took hold of the vacant body; that’s what happens three hours after death, ma petite. I tell you this so you’ll understand how the glass works in case you ever have to use it. Also remember that it can only be used once. If the person dies again, his or her soul having already been in the glass will be trapped there immediately.”
I nodded. “But what happened to the great lady?”
He kissed my forehead and returned the soul glass to its pouch. “She did not fare well, ma petite. Life was unbearable without her loved ones. She went mad and died again a year later.”
Charlotte’s screams tore through my dreams. My eyes flew open. I bolted from the bed and raced to Monsieur Etienne’s room. I pushed my way past the servants who stood by the door, peering in.
Monsieur Etienne was sitting up, his fingers clawing at his throat. He made horrible choking sounds. Madame paced the floor at the far end of the room, screaming for someone to help her husband. I ran to the bed. It was then that I realised that I still held the soul glass; I must have fallen asleep with it clutched in my hands. I put it down on the bedding and tried to loosen the white ribbon that held together the collar of Monsieur Etienne’s nightshirt. As I untangled the knot, I was overcome by the foul odour that emanated from Monsieur’s mouth and the bed that reeked of urine.
“Where is Philippe?” I asked.
“Gone to fetch the doctor,” the cook replied. She stood at the door wringing her apron, but would not budge one inch into the room.
Monsieur’s eyes reflected the agony he was going through; his pupils were like large black discs. His face was awash with sweat and tears as he struggled for air. I wiped the mucus that ran from his nose with a corner of the sheet and tried to calm him. He tried to say something but finally gave up and fell back in the bed gasping. I knew the end was only moments away. I could feel it.
“Where is the doctor? Where is he?” Madame howled from her corner, but still would not set a foot near her husband’s bed. But I knew the doctor would never be able to come in time and even if he could, Monsieur was past saving.
All of this must have happened in seconds and yet it felt like an eternity – that moment when I realised that he was about to breathe his last. I grabbed the mirror which I’d laid upon the sheets. My hand shook as I brought it to his lips. He sputtered twice, his eyes rolled back and with that, he expelled his last breath … the glass in front of him capturing his soul.
Then it all came back – that morning, similar to this one, when my father had used the soul glass to save my mother. I remembered the midwife yelling that the baby was still coming and that my mother had to fight for her life and be strong. The next thing I remembered was Papa’s face as he leaned in close and ordered me to bring the pouch from the bottom drawer of his desk in the study. I raced there as quickly as I could and brought it back to him. I saw everything; how he placed the mirror close to my mother’s mouth … her last breath, like blanched vapour smearing the glass … Mama’s eyes open and empty … Papa kissing her lips … his tears dampening her skin … and then his breath flowing into the mirror. The dark glass fogged with his breath. It swirled like a mist across the surface of the glass and then narrowed into a tight circle. Suddenly it exploded from the mirror into wisps of smoke that surged back into Mama’s mouth and nose. She coughed and screamed, and then my sister was born into the world.
Papa lay dead on the floor next to the bed. It was part of the soul glass story he hadn’t told me: that in order to save the life of the beloved, you’d have to sacrifice your own. Your love had to be that strong and that great. He’d saved not only my mother’s life, but my sister’s as well.
I remembered all this and as I stood by Monsieur Etienne’s bed, my mind was flush with what I needed to do next. My breath would cross the threshold of the dark glass and release him. Certainly, my love was great enough to save him. And then … he’d return as father … husband … while my body lay in the ground, my soul in an even colder and darker place. There’d be no one to save me. Even if anyone knew the magic of the soul glass, nobody in the house loved me enough to save me.
“Etienne … Etienne … my love …” Charlotte cried hysterically, her face veiled with glistening tears.
I prayed that God would forgive me for what I was about to do. My hand trembled as I stared into the obsidian glass and the kingdom of shadows that lay within it. Then I called Madame Charlotte over to the bed.
Alma Sinan is a Toronto writer. Some of her publications include "The Beet Man" in Falling Star Magazine (Spring 2009), "Morpheus' Pen" on the Frame Lines website (Feb 2009), "The Summoning" in All Rights Reserved Magazine (Feb 2009), and others in Black Petals and Morbid Curiosity magazines. She also has a regular column on gravestone symbolism and writes short stories for the Raven's Call Quarterly.