(Fiction) Once of Grace and Beauty

Frontispiece to Chopin's Third Ballade 1895 by Aubrey Beardsley 1872-1898

There once was a girl of grace and beauty who lived in a grand old house full of marble and gold with an army of servants who dressed her and fed her and shooed her to and fro. She slept on a bed she could roll three times across and bathed in a pool under a blue dome at the end of a long hall that echoed. During the day, she read tall books full of drawings and maps and recited numbers for her prickly old tutor. At night, she sang and danced and dazzled her father’s guests with wit and charm, and he looked on her with pride without reason. And from his mouth he poured blessings like a river. And from his hands he draped silks over her skin and cast glints into her eyes with diamonds. He bought far-away fruits that had no name and the plumes of rare birds which she wore in her hair and changed with the seasons.

And she had no cares.

And so she was careless.

Until there came a day of laughter and horses and billowing scarves and the thud of hooves on the ground and the steal of a galloping kiss on a lonely road in a forest where a strange boy tended the trees. There was a cry and whinny and a crack of a skull. There was the rustle of leaves and the caw of a crow, like the cackle of death. There was an old caretaker with skin like bark and leaves in his beard who emerged from the grove like he was born of it and bent over the lifeless child before looking up at the girl on the horse with diamonds in her eyes and uttering a curse in a long tongue. There was a knife. And a cry. And the bubbling of breath through blood, which the old man gurgled and squeezed from the slit in his throat like juice from a fruit before casting it wide, muttering insanities, and collapsing over the pale child in the leaves.

And what was dust became dust.

And an eternity began.

 

vintage key on a white background. sketch

I suppose you want to hear of the Lords of Shadow and the Book of the Nameless and of the greatest spell ever cast. But to tell it right is to tell it well, and for that we must start with a curse, and a grave of secrets, and my first adventure with Etude Étranger.

It was in Romania, where I was recovering from my love for a man who didn’t care of my affliction, a great mustachioed Caucasian named Beltran Yeḉg whose Armenian mother had lain with the last of a tribe whose name is not spoken. When I knew him, Beltran was vigorous and feared, with arms like a Kodiak bear and a laugh like a towering waterfall. But it was his eyes that enchanted me—curious and mischievous and full of care, like a puppy’s. Not that anyone saw them but me, hidden as they were under that heavy brow. Beltran could scowl better than Attila, and he looked no less formidable, especially in his high hat of buckles and fur. He would, in his middle years, come to be known as a ruthless magician and cunning warrior, a reputation well earned during the war. But to me his menaces were always gentle, like the caress of a cat’s tail, and I would spend many nights and mornings with my head on his chest looking into his wide brown eyes, at once soft and indomitable.

Beltran was the first to call me Mila, short for the name of my ancestors, and he was the second-to-last in a long line of magicians, sorcerers, charlatans, clerics, thieves, murderers, and spies I accompanied over nearly two and half centuries on my long search for a cure—a cure for life. The first was colorful huckster, Baltasar of Gradarius, a man of not quite five feet—but then, you must remember that people were shorter then—with a soft pink face and a pale turban with a colorful tassel that he wore at all times, even when he bathed. In it, he concealed some money and a knife, which were the two means by which he made his way in the world. I sought him because he was the only “magician” I had ever met. It was not uncommon in those days for bards and circus players to travel from lord to lord seeking an audience and a modest payment for their talents. This included the odd alchemist and sorcerer, which were always my favorite. My father liked female tumblers and acrobats and ladies who swallowed swords (I was a grown woman before I understood that), but I liked the old bearded owls in their musty frocks, which they had a tendency to grasp at the lapel and flap as they lectured us on combustion, or the vacuum, or magnetism, which were all terribly new and exciting and which they would then demonstrate for us. I would always go to the parlor early and watch through a crack in the door as they unpacked portable chests and rifled through trunks that clinked with glassware and smelled of the dust of faraway places.

Seeing the happiness it brought me, Father let it be known that such people could always find an audience at his manor in any season. In that way, he never stopped trying to compensate for the death of my mother, who left this world as I entered. I think it also sprang from his long neglected desire to travel. Despite his wealth and title, the requirements of his office kept him close to the Czar and his armies on the border with Prussia, so my father lived vicariously through the men, and occasional woman, who visited us from distant lands, both real and imaginary.

I remembered Baltasar of Gradarius because he performed the greatest spectacle of my youth. His home, he claimed, was a grand country of crystals and colonnades on the far side of the Black Sea where the trees had red leaves that turned blue in the fall, the men all spoke in poetry, and the women were as beautiful as Aphrodite. He had to leave, he explained, because as a young academic fellow at university, where he studied the ancient mystic arts, he fell in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Arenna, and being discovered with her in a secret garden, was banished—saved from execution only by her mournful pleas. It was his hope that, by spreading the word and wonders of his homeland in the lands to the West, the Sultan would eventually come to forgive Baltasar and allow him to return home, where he was sure the beautiful Arenna still waited for him.

It was an old tale even then, but comfortable, and I recall a tinge of sadness in his telling, as if not all of it were a lie.

He then demonstrated the tools and technology of Gradarius, which included flashes of phosphorus and magnesium salts and a menagerie of contraptions, each of which introduced by a lengthy disposition on its origins and use in the distant land. Toward the end, he produced a wooden box covered in various levers on pivots. Each lever supported a painted magnet that repelled its neighbors such that a hard twist of the first triggered a chain reaction of flipping and spinning whose sole purpose was the striking of bells and rattling of noisemakers. I remember it because as it ceased its conniptions, its owner pulled large inflatable sac from a standing chest—heavy and ornately embroidered with various scenes from Gradarian mythology, which Baltasar, in his tasseled turban, described to us solemnly as he inflated it with a bellows that sounded like farts. He explained that in his country, men did not eat the egg of the chicken, which was unknown there, but instead of a peacock-like bird called a “welchikin” which would only give up its eggs when scared. It was customary, then, that farmers would plant the red-leaved “poplaudicus” tree, of which the welchikin was very fond, in their front yards, and that after a number of welchikin had roosted, would scare them with the noisemaker, causing them to scatter with a fright, releasing their green-and-purple-speckled eggs in midair. The delicacies were only kept from breaking on the ground by the very inflatable sac before him, on which children were allowed to jump—as a demonstration, he assured my father, of an industrious and scientific process.

It was, I think, the only time I was ever allowed to jump on anything.

Alas, by the time I grew into womanhood and found the aged Baltasar, he was in a prison in Germany, having been accused of touching the daughter of the prince when she came on her own to observe him unpacking, just as I had. I did what I could to alleviate his predicament—not because such an act didn’t deserve to be punished, but because in those days, accusation and guilt were one and the same and prisons could be so very, very cruel. I was certain he would die there, emaciated and chained to a wall, covered in his own filth, with not even a rag to cap his bald head or window to see the sun. It is a matter upon which the followers of the one god and I differ: that there is no possibility of reform where there is no possibility of hope.

I knew he was a quack, of course, but I had hoped that in his many travels—he was, in truth, from Damascus, I believe—that he might have met someone who was not, someone with true knowledge of the occult powers that everyone then believed acted in concert with physical law. I had little hope of returning home, you see, where there were growing whispers. Any woman, noble or not, who did not appear to age was said to be in league with the devil. Thus, in return for my intercession on his behalf, whereby he was allowed to see the sky once a fortnight for fifteen minutes, Baltasar told me of a man with whom he had occasion to travel and from whom he had stolen a bulbous turquoise stone of some significance. Baltasar said shortly after he acquired it, he began hearing the voices of the dead in his sleep, including that of the man he had swindled out of the small fortune that financed his traveling contraptions, and as such, that the rock was now at the bottom of the Danube.

Its owner, the man Baltasar had robbed, was Wilm Castleby, red-haired and furious. Castleby was fond of top hats, tailored coats, and large audiences. When I found him, he had been hired by the electors of a small Alsatian town to remove a witch who vexed them from the hills beyond. The townspeople had mildly resisted her thievery and pranks for several years but weren’t moved to act in earnest until a young man was found strangled at the bottom of a well. A fee was levied and used to pay for Wilm’s services, although in truth I suspect he would’ve done it for food and lodging if they’d all promised to watch. I caught him as he was making his rounds among the town—he suspected the witch traveled there in disguise—and he made crude sexual advances to me for no other reason than to call attention to himself. Thereafter he snared the witch by first trapping her familiar, a black marten, as it raided the communal grain larder through a hole that Wilm himself had opened. A few days later, the witch was hung by the electors in the town square. She looked all of sixteen—although in truth one can never tell: for it’s true that those in league with evil often do not age.

Castleby found me in the crowd after the hanging, which he had turned to spectacle with the tenor and fury of the best Inquisitors. He apologized, genuinely but succinctly, as if one could be forgiven anything if it were done in the name of showmanship. With an air of earnestness I had not yet seen, he suggested I act as his assistant in lieu of payment. In return, he said, he would attempt to break my curse. I knew very well that he wanted our relationship to turn romantic, but I was certain that gave me the upper hand. Still, I admit to being surprised many months later when I caught him wearing my underwear and bonnet and speaking to himself in the mirror in a high falsetto. But predilections aside, he was true to his word. Amid his other adventures, he made many attempts to sever that which bound me—each less on the hope that it would be successful, I think, than that it would cause me to fall backwards with gratitude, legs apart. He was unsuccessful on both accounts, and although I must admit he did have some genuine skill—and a talented tongue—I could never get over the falsetto, and at the urging of the woman I had replaced, who bore him a grudge and a child, I left Wilm for a rival, a round Bavarian thaumaturge named Brindel, who hid his ruddy, infantile face under a long and menacing beard.

My time with Brindel lasted less than a year. It soon became apparent that he was no less of a narcissist, just a poorer showman. His achievements, which he was sure should have earned him fame far in excess of Castelby’s, were at best arcane and academic, and he loathed everyone who failed to appreciate their brilliance even while he yearned for their cheers. It seemed he had only agreed to our arrangement on the hopes that it would infuriate Castleby, which it did. Wilm had no shortage of enemies, of course, just as he had no shortage of fans, but he praised and scorned them all with charm and equanimity. What he could not abide, however, was what he called a “disloyalist,” into whose ranks I had fallen. A duel was called. The two men met on the dew-bright bank of the Elbe—Brindel with his manservant, Castleby with his retinue. I took no side but observed from the shade of a distant tree. The men paced as a count was called. They turned and fired. Wilm was not only vigorous and athletic but also a crack shot and Brindel died of a musket ball through the heart. He clutched his chest with a look of shock and fell backward to the turf, stiff as a board. Cheers arose from the crowd, half of whom were still drunk from the previous night’s revels and so didn’t immediately notice that their hero had been grazed deeply across the arm. It wasn’t until later, when he collapsed at his victory celebration, that we realized the truth. The fat German had known his weakness and had made for himself a fragmenting bullet, like buckshot, dipped in poison. His adversary took six agonizing days to die—the worser fate, to be sure. As his face grew pale and he started coughing blood, Wilm’s admirers and hangers-on abandoned him, one by one, until I alone remained, which he both loathed and needed: one last audience before the final curtain, which he faced stammering lines from Faust.

With his dying hand, he left me all his worldly possessions. His creditors took the bulk, including everything of any real value, although I understand it covered less than one tenth of his balance. I was allowed to keep a small sum, which I passed to his child, and some of his personal effects, which I kept for myself. These included a number of books and letters stuffed into a large wooden stationery box that folded out to make a traveling desk, complete with shelves, drawers, quills, ink, ink blotters, wax, seals, and so forth. While waiting for his estate to close, I continued to receive his mail and used the contents of the box to inform both his irate creditors and those seeking his assistance of his unfortunate yet heroic demise. One letter in particular struck me. It was from a man of some importance, an Austrian noble. I recognized in his oblique words a genuine desperation. In those days, in society at least, one rarely said what one meant outright. One demonstrated wit and grace—superiority, even—by the light touch of one’s euphemisms. This was especially true of anything unseemly. Young women did not have abortions, although we most certainly had sex. If the untoward resulted, we “went to the country” for a season, or to “take the waters” at some out-of-the-way hot spring, only to return rosy and rejuvenated. The problem, of course, was that meant one could not actually take the waters without someone supposing the worst. Hence the obsession with appearances, and on being seen. One’s only defense against rumor and innuendo was to act as openly and ostentatiously as possible so as to leave the smallest margin for supposition—to invite an entire train of followers to take the waters as well, for instance, and to finance their participation. Invitations thus flew about hither and thither among the idle class as they each sought escape from the very eyes on whom they nevertheless depended.

Wilm had been invited to winter at the nobleman’s ancestral home, which was described at length as a sportsman’s paradise. In fact, a full two-thirds of the multi-page letter was devoted to its “sylvan slopes dappled with fishing ponds and forest groves, each thick with winter game,” with the final third quickly mentioning that, while he was there, he might perhaps also attend to “certain other matters of which you are an acknowledged expert”—meaning the occult. I responded to the letter with the news, as I had all the others, but added that I had “worked as Mr. Castleby’s assistant for several years” and that I was in possession of his notes and artifacts, and although I had not his skill and experience “in the matters of which you speak,” that my services were available, had his lordship need of them. The reply was swift, which is to say came within a matter of weeks. A carriage had been dispatched, I was told, and would arrive within days of receipt of the letter, which had traveled ahead by mounted messenger. And just like that, I was employed as an occult dabbler, the first work for which I would receive a salary.

I made no attempt to conceal my gender, but neither did I expressly reveal it, which caused considerable consternation upon my arrival. My lord intended to send me away first thing the following morning and would have done if not for a heavy snowfall that night that obliged the better part of a week’s stay, during which time the facts of the case became known to me. It was a mild haunting, as they go, but harrowing all the same—full of the usual patent terrors: doors that wouldn’t remain closed, ghastly sounds emanating from inside the walls, and of course the knocking. Knocking, knocking, interminable knocking. It woke you at all hours, rising in intensity with each unanswered bout until at last it was like a hammer on the door, rattling the hinges and echoing through the house, louder and louder until finally someone had the strength to answer an empty doorway. Some nights it would start again an hour after you returned to bed. At other times it would resume before you even crossed the foyer, or even the very moment the door was shut, immediately angry, as if the door that had just been opened was not the correct one.

And that was the clue. I suspect Wilm would’ve gotten it right away. It took me a fortnight of frustration and study. Before the snows abated, I suggested to my lord that I be allowed to stay, at least until he found a suitable replacement. I would draw no salary, I said, unless my interventions were successful. He agreed, reluctantly, eyes haggard from lack of sleep, and I set to work. Some weeks later, after a terrible night that saw his wife and children huddling in a corner, I asked my lord and his family to leave the house and mentioned, as they packed into the covered sled, that I might do it quite a bit of damage in their absence, but that in the end, I would drive the apparition away—or be taken by it. I think by then he had lost all faith in me and would’ve sent me to jail as a charlatan if he’d had a single alternative. But he didn’t, and so with his trembling family wrapped under a single large shawl, like a grandmotherly tent, they took off across the snow. I watched until they were out of sight, then turned to face the house alone.

It was a mistake. I had only done it to save myself the embarrassment of their continual looks of frustration, which I blamed for my lack of success. Who could work under such conditions, I told myself. The truth was that I did not, in fact, know what I was doing, and the flight of the occupants turned the haunting from insistent to wrathful. Never had I seen such things. Several times, I was frightened to complete catatonia, physically unable to move. Hoping to escape the horror, I removed myself to the servants’ cottage, where the apparition found me on the second night. It pounded on the door, all the angrier for being ignored and abandoned. I shrieked as it as it rapped on my window and scraped the pane. I thought of running many times. It was only the deep snow and my knowledge that I could not die that held me. In the end, I took a sledgehammer to the walls of the manor. Somewhere, I was sure, there was a door that needed to be opened. I found it in the nursery, boarded on two sides. Sweaty, panting, and covered in dust, I opened it without ceremony. It creaked on its hinges as it swung wide and instantly a lighter air settled over the roof. Moments later, a bird alighted the branch of a tree near the window. My lord had mentioned in his letter that he hadn’t seen a bird on his estate in months.

I dropped the sledgehammer and wiped the sweat from my brow.

I had done it.

 

vintage key on a white background. sketch

I was a wreck—mentally, spiritually, and physically—as was the house. I had put a hole in nearly every wall. I didn’t wait for my lord to return to inspect the damage but at the thaw found immediate lodgings in Vienna, where I advertised my services as a governess. I’d decided I’d had enough of occult matters. But employment proved difficult. You must remember that in those days life was significantly determined by birth, a right I could no longer claim. Paper was expensive and literacy rare, which made the letter of recommendation one’s passport through the ports of commerce and employment. It was only by my lord’s recommendation, which came unexpectedly by evening post, that I finally found work. Of the damage to his ancestral home, he said only that the door which had been boarded by his uncle would remain open and that his wife, once depleted by the affair, was rejuvenated at the opportunity to do some redecorating. He went on to mention that a wealthy but untitled family of his acquaintance had need of a governess.

It is a position for which you are singularly qualified, he wrote, for the youngest of this gentleman’s two children is, to put it delicately, most unusual.

It was the truth. He was most unusual indeed…


the intro to Bright Black, the fifth and final course of my forthcoming occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

cover image by Aubrey Beardsley