By Devon Lawler
The old man walks with a gait and a cane. The latter having no effect on the former. A stark grayness hangs in the air, a fog come to suffocate him. The cobble-stoned streets are unkind, blisters form before the day is done. It’s as if ash falls down from the sky like snow come to cover and kill the earth. How can I get to the Tuileries? Or the jardin des Tuileries? A woman points down a street and he limps on. His face is marked with deep wrinkles that make canyons in his cheeks. So deep they look like scars to passerby. He gets to the garden and stops. The trees are blackened like soot; nothing stands out against the landscape. He sits down at the bench with the dead. Too tired, he says, too tired to die.
I could not describe the way she danced. Twirled was more the word. She spun herself across the golden dance floor; blonde hair and yellow gown whirling with her. I loved the way she did it, her dress would fold and unfold fold unfold fold unfold. Everything was illuminated; grand chandeliers played images across the light marbled floor. Like dancing on water, she would say later. The hall was filled with sunlight despite the raging blizzard waiting just outside the large French windows. She smiled at everyone in the crowded room. I fumbled as I poured her champagne. Anything else, Miss? She smiled wide, her lips full, but let it dissipate before it got too big.
Hall deserted and alone she danced. She wore a white dress that went to her knees and a simple sash across her waist. The chandeliers had gone out long ago, the last defense against the white night gone. The darkness had flooded the room, all I could see was her white frame slowly moving about the floor. Fold unfold fold unfold. She moved easily through the darkness, it shifted and swirled about her as if it were some vast ocean she swam through. She seemed fearless. Me, the only one conscious to witness her beauty. I grew pallid. She turned and saw me and let her smile grow free. She lifted up a white hand and I crossed the floor. Our secrets began.
Violet and Vert:
Her dress is violet today, and easily blows in the summer breeze. Folding and unfolding. Still dancing it seems. Walking in a garden brings pleasures I have never experienced before. No more tea cart, or letters, or orders. No waiting on anyone. Only her. She left that silly umbrella back in the house. I never understood the idea of a parasol, she said, it’s hardly ever sunny here, seems to me like you would want to enjoy every minute of it. She leaves the rest of the women in the sunroom, ermine furs choking their necks. She suddenly runs into the maze, laughter trailing behind her for me to grab at. As I run in the maze I realize how long it’s been since I have run at all. Adulthood must be abandoned in her presence. I catch up with her at its grassy center, concealed by tall hedges and winding roots. We both fall to the ground. Intoxicated.
The Black Prince:
Princes and dukes come each week to court her. Medals flash on their chests that mean nothing and were given by no one. She sits on her chair in the sunroom and takes them one by one. Each man is another slap in the face, but she takes it without complaint. The other servants and I wait for her orders, but it troubles her that I’m here. That I’m here for her to say no thank you to hundreds of men who come to witness the beauty of the Helen of Sparta.
The men come, loving the air they spread about themselves like perfume. They’re what we called, the young princes, the naïve princes, men who have never seen war. The young princes leave for war and come back as the old ones, gaining a hundred years in two. They come back, and you know that they know death. The old ones don’t have any time for courtship, the young princes do. They have time for everything and nothing. They move through the country in a massive jovial party that never ends, leaving behind used women and unpaid servants. One prince comes more than the rest. His lust is tattooed to his face. His eyes are full and black. I fidget in the place by the window. She has already denied him several times before, but now he is more eager, his greed too much for him to control. After the usual formalities, another denial, yet he implores her. She again refuses him. I’m truly flattered Count, I’m sure there are plenty of women eagerly waiting for you back in Moscow. None so pretty as you, he says. She shows him a dead smile, and tries to change subject, but he stops her with his hand trying to fix a fallen strand of her hair. She quickly does it herself and backs away towards the window, he follows her swiftly, and she’s scared because she knows her family is not obligated to stop him. He’s almost got her cornered now but they haven’t dropped the act. He’s almost there; I need to do something—
Miss you’re going to be late to lunch with the Duchess. I say it a little too loudly. She can’t speak for a second. Yes that’s right, she turns to him, I’m sorry but I have a lunch to get to right now. Another servant shows him out as he fumes. When he’s gone she presses her back to the wall and slides to the floor in exhaustion. I want to help her but I can’t without calling attention to myself. She looks at me once and closes her eyes, and then she gets up and readjusts herself.
After lunch another prince comes in and the line continues.
She’s started to teach me how to read;
My… My love for Linton…is like the foolage?
Foliage, she corrects me.
…foliage in the woods: time…will change it, I am well… well aware, as winter…as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff res… res…
Resembles, she smiles, and I smile back. Keep on going, she tells me.
Resembles the et..eternal rocks beneath…a source of lit-little visible delight…delight, but necessity. Nelly—
Necessary not necessity. What? I don’t understand.
A source of little visible delight, but necessary, not necessity. Oh, I say. She laughs and urges me on.
But necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!
I am Heathcliff? I look down at the book in confusion. That’s an odd thing to say, I tell her. A lone candle is the only thing that illuminates the massive library. I finish the page and we move on to the next.
I love this river, it’s always so warm, but you need to promise not to tell anyone else, it’s a secret. I promise her. She lies back on the sand and lets the warmth dry the water off her skin. She closes her eyes. I thought noble ladies like you didn’t know how to swim? She smiles without looking up, to their extreme sorrow I do. I lay back with her.
What’s it like being a servant? I look up, first time I’ve ever seen her solemn.
Better than other things I suppose. Like what things? She understands it’s hard for me to answer, but I do. Working in the field’s maybe? I used to care after the horses. Pouring champagne is a little bit more entertaining than shoveling manure. She doesn’t smile, just lifts the corner of her mouth quickly to acknowledge.
She slips into the cool water, beckoning me with every ounce she has. There’s a cave nearby where we can go, she says. I slip in after her, now she smiles. She wraps her legs around my torso as I lift her out of the water. Tell me your dreams, I say. She pauses a moment, Paris, she says. I’ve always dreamed of going to Paris. I would be a dancer. Every day you and I would walk in the Tuileries. Her eyes are closed again, her wet hair draped across my shoulder. That’s a nice dream. We fall back into the water.
The Creeping Red:
We meet in library often now, to sit in silence with each other. She stopped dancing long ago, her mind warped by uncertainty. We were standing on the brink of a new age. An age where men call for peace and violence simultaneously. Where revolutions are fought for tyrants and peacekeepers are killed like the rest. But I don’t think this way yet. The fog of mystery still clouded the wisest of us. But I don’t care. My world remains hers. It is hers.
Are you afraid? Yes, I admit, I think I’ve always been a little afraid. She smiles, she’s always been fearless, I remember. Do you know how to light the chandeliers in the ballroom? She asks me. Yes. Then come with me. She gestures with her hand.
The ballroom was more magnificent than I have ever remembered it. We’ve only ever danced at night, with only the touch of each other’s skin and the sound of our breaths to guide us. But now we no longer fear being revealed, the house is too scared to do anything but wait in their bed chambers, leaving us alone in the grand hall filled with light. The marbled floor reflected our image perfectly, a seamless fantasy lying just below our feet. The dark night is tempered by the light permeating from the room. We dance without music as we usually do. She twirls in my arms, her dress swirling about me. Fold unfold fold unfold fold. Time is lost track of and we don’t notice, through the confinement of the windows, the red glow, growing on the horizon.
The house is burning. The chandeliers have fallen. Men run through the garden wearing red, like the blood that they spill. Hurry, I yell at her. I pull her hand through the door, and down to the first floor. The stairs seem to get longer as we run down them. Fate working against us. The French windows have all been broken and we easily run though them. Our breath runs cold in the air. The forest. It’s been rushing through my head the entire time. We run. The trees are all dead again. Their broken branches swing at us, the snow trying to will us to stop. Behind us the house burns in the night. Its colors dance across the white snow like demons running around a fire. Men shout behind us, their rifles fire in the air. I yell a whisper for her to hurry again. They’re coming, she whispers desperately. A shot fired suddenly stops me; her body falls onto the snow behind us. I rush to grab her and a bullet grazes my thigh. Blood starts to drip down my fingers as I pick her up. I try to run fast but darkness is creeping at the edge of my vision.
The boy ran to the cave by the river quickly. Not thinking about anything else but to run. A body is in his arms, now a corpse. The river is frozen and easy to cross. He hides in the cave alone, holding the body to his chest. Truth is ignored in his mind as facts try to come to light. He refuses, willing to remain in darkness for fear of everything the light will bring. He tries to beat death, vainly.
This is Devon Lawler’s first try at short fiction. He aspires to be a novelist. He currently lives in Bridgewater, New Jersey.