LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Letters Written to the Dearest Deceased Frances Blood, by R.M. Graves

LetterstoFrancesBloodRunnymede, Friday 30th March 1787. Afternoon.

Fanny, it is I, Mary.

I know we vowed to never indulge the aristocracy. However, I must work my sister’s keep as Father invests poorly in the ill-fated fancies found at the bottom of bottles. I relish not living off, or for, a man, either, and if it is imperative to take a coin from Mankind I promise you, it shall be for the betterment of Womankind. I will teach girls. So, I am afraid I have taken the position of a governess.

Fanny, I must beg pardon for abandoning our school on Newington Green, which could not be run by me alone. Islington still distrusts our motives for teaching their poor girls to read and to write and I could no longer inscribe upon a blackboard with one hand whilst the other wrestled drunken fathers for the privilege.

Two opportunities were presented to me. One, by friends, a placement with Lady Kingsborough in Ireland, the other, by rumour, with Lord Gravesigh on a mysterious island fortification in the Thames between Brentford and Runnymede: Waterspike Castle. Thus, destiny’s path forked and—always one to take the road less travelled—I chose the peculiar option.

Another Mary, in another life, might write to you now from a fairer isle, for this grim ait has revealed itself to be an abomination. Waterspike juts blackly from the Thames: a leviathan in the Gothick style, severed from the riverside but for low-tide, when the spit of gravel that serves as a footbridge is exposed. Even then, one is tested by a vertiginous climb of a hundred steep, narrow steps to Lord Gravesigh’s front door.

However, even this roar of rock trembles at the quiet horror that is my tiny, luminous charge.

The young Gravesigh resides at a nearby convent, built on the landside of Waterspike’s footbridge as if to guard it; or us from it perhaps. I was tasked with collecting the girl from her old life at the convent to deliver us both to our new life together at Waterspike.

Oh, dear Fanny, I fear today has been tormented by your memory and my countenance may have reflected my pain, for this morning at the convent door, when my charge was introduced to me, the child leapt behind the thick black skirts of Mother Superior, as if even this fearsome shoveljaw was preferable to yours truly. The child is of an indeterminate age and barely human. Mother Superior described receiving her as the newborn of Gravesigh’s scullery maid ten or eleven years since. The child’s name is Bernadette, although—and I relate this with lead in my heart—the girl knows not her birth-name and answers only to “Pin,” for it is in that capacity she has been ‘paying her way’ in the convent; pinning and stitching their vestments. Less than a dozen years into her life and she is defined—and bound—by her labour.

How can I describe this wretch to you, dearest friend, without offending the poor lost soul of one who spent her life caring for children and who gave her life in the delivery of one? One must imagine a bird not of our earthly firmament, but of lunar skies. Her young years might still fit on the fingers of two hands, and her form be that of the most delicate waxen doll, but her hair is cobweb silver. Web must ensnare her throat as well, for she speaks only in whispers, forcing one’s ear to her hot breath when she speaks. But this is no faery creature, for her fingertips—and her eyes—are sharpened: black and hard as coffin-nails. When I reached for her, following a period of glinting appraisal from the skirts of her devout protector, she took my hand, and it was as if an insect crawled into my palm.

She may be cursed by a spectral countenance, but she is also betrayed by it, for Mother Superior reports the Lord Gravesigh himself possesses the same pallor and the same fine silver hair. “Bastard,” she stage-whispered as if to protect the child from gossip. I can only wonder why Bernadette—I will not use her abused name—should be protected now from something so flimsy as a wicked tongue, when she has spent her life in hard labour at the service of nuns, and futurity holds little prospect but a loveless marriage to preserve ancestral property.

I confess that, when this creature and I stepped from the convent into another colourless day, I feared the sorrow that had taken up its abode in my heart now ruled the world, and all life was fiendishly distorted and dimmed. However, the day—and this message—was saved from melancholy by a single hopeful event.

Just as the door swung shut, clucking issued from the vestibule beyond and it flung wide again. In the place of the formidable bulwark of Mother Superior stood a young woman (Sister Miriam I was to later learn), her smiling, ruddy cheeks streaked wet. My charge sprang from my side to grip the woman’s legs.

Sister Miriam presented from behind her back, a kite, exquisitely fashioned into the shape of an angel. She blinked wetly at me, lips aquiver. “We made this together and never flew it.”

She stroked Bernadette’s hair once, then winkled herself from the child’s embrace to place the kite in her hands instead. “Fly it from the ramparts when you are unhappy, sweet Pin. I will see it, then we can share your sadness between us.”

As Bernadette and I crossed the river along a gritty, puddled path, a breeze fanned my cheek and I was shocked to find it sharply chilled with wet. However, my charge wept no childish tears. She had set her chin, pressed her lips quite white, and glared at Waterspike Castle.

*

Runnymede, Friday 30th March 1787. Evening.

Fanny, I penned the last letter in my new bed-chamber at the castle—it is my habit to write in a strange territory to claim it, like an animal might lay its scent!—but paused because the story is morose already and I did not want to make it darker still with a description of my placement.

How we mocked the so-called prudency of becoming governesses, for prudence was the excuse of the weak. It was our duty to further the progress of Womankind, not reinforce it, and how to do that as anathema to both gentry and staff alike? No more than a trophy to one and a spy to the other. Yet here I sit—wrapped in blankets and breathing clouds in a chamber that devours light and heat—a governess.

Waterspike is half ruins. It barely offers a roof, if sponge-soft rafters and a thick mat of moss can be described as such. It is an edifice that might once have terrified marauders, but now, surplus to requirements, is being reclaimed by water and mud.

The staff offer hospitality with vacant expressions, murmuring rote scripts. They undertake their duties like clockwork mannequins, showing Bernadette and me to our quarters with all the human joy of rocking levers.

During this, my charge was meek as a lamb, though I still perceive her to be a wolf disguised, and she would not release her kite so I might ready her for dinner. She stood rigid in the middle of her cavernous bed-chamber—so dank that a roaring fireplace had no effect other than to create a layer of steam—clutching her angel.

A colossal oak wardrobe volunteered little in the way of extra clothing for the child, and all of it the wrong size, but I endeavoured to dress her as best I could in what I could find.

Fanny, you and I are no strangers to mothering, our younger sisters will give testament to that, and I am not some pampered lady who has seen nought of the real world, but the scars on that girl, across the backs of her legs and her back, made me embrace her in a manner unbecoming the formality of my position. The lacerations, mostly healed, speak of a will I fear the nuns have worked hard to break. A will yet untamed. The child’s fingertips are carapaces that I believe to be a scarring too, burnished to oxblood-leather thimbles.

Still, this is not the most remarkable event of today, for upon dressing Bernadette in the tidiest oversized smock that I could find, and proceeding to roll the sleeves, the creature grew irritable. She tore the garment off over her head, and set about ripping the sleeves apart with her teeth! So ferocious was her attack that it terrified me both mute and rigid. There appeared a method to her cannibalism, however. I grew rapt as she produced a bright needle—hidden in a stocking the way a robber might hide a dirk—then unwound thread from her remnants and commenced re-fashioning her garment’s armscyes.

The wraith displayed unnatural dexterity. Disparate fabric flowed through her hands, seamlessly joined by a needle skipping with all the speed—and some of the sound—of a hummingbird’s wings. I would venture it has taken me longer to write the event down, than it took to occur. In moments, my charge, with sly meekness, held a renewed smock to me so that I might dress her once more.

Her tailoring was wasted, for the lord of our decrepit manor chose not to dine with us tonight. According to the housekeeper, Gravesigh often resides at his club so he might focus on business. I can only surmise by the crumbling ramparts revealed, as I write, against a cloud-smudged moon, that his business bears as little fruit as did my father’s. Though I pray he returns home in a finer mood than Father; these hallways would be a chill place to lie if I were to sleep at my charge’s door as I would my sisters’.

Tomorrow must bring cheerier tales for us both, for gloomier is hard to perceive.

Adieu!

P.S. It is not yet morning and I beg forgiveness again, this time for my scrawl as I scribe in the dark and abed.

Upon retiring to this four-posted galleon of cricking wood and damp goosedown, and shutting all its curtains against the castle’s omnipresent draughts, I lay awake for a good time taking in the unfamiliar moans and ruinous creaks of my surroundings. So when my bed-chamber door screeched, my heart stopped. I persuaded myself of another mischievous draught, and girded myself to leave my bed and attend to the door, when it creaked shut again, and locked.

Sweet friend, all who travel have experienced this type of intrusion—though it could be said of fewer men than women. We often lay together for protection, and many times I have slept with some makeshift cudgel beneath my pillow. I cursed myself for not taking precautions tonight, and for the weakling jellied-eels of my limbs.

My bed-curtains parted, and I endeavoured to scream at an indistinct, lumpish silhouette against the moonglow, but a gasp was all I could muster. My covers lifted, and the crawl of a gaze upon my form readied a curse worthy of a gin-soaked fish-wife to my lips. Then my mattress dipped, and a trembling bird nestled at my side.

“Bernadette?” I said.

“No.” A whisper. “Pin.”

*

Runnymede, Tuesday 24th April 1787.

Fanny, I suppose you should be glad that it has been an entire month since I last wrote to you. First you should be relieved at reading no more of my dreariness, and second you might be pleased that, instead of writing, I have been living—such as living may be in this mausoleum.

I recall our heated conversation about the poor, on a bench in St Pancras churchyard. The time a passing curate remarked, tittering, that we “asked men’s questions” of each other! How our blood boiled at the injustice of children being denied a teacher because of their station. How we plotted to rise the lower orders.

However, witnessing how quickly Waterspike’s servants took wily note of my charge’s no doubt lucrative abilities, I despair. The lower orders of this household display not ‘dulled wits waiting to be sharpened.’ They are sharpened tools already, keened on hard times and ready to bleed an opportunity.

In but one day, Pin appeared before me in our classroom—a library of mouldering books gawping through rheumy windows upon a courtyard choked by vines—with a pile of linens awaiting repair. The castle possesses a housekeeper, a cook, two maids and a ‘manservant’ whose responsibilities appear as vague as his title. Including myself that is six people, for the Lord Gravesigh avoids us and remains at his club. I am certain that six people cannot wear through as many garments as Pin is given, daily, to repair, so I am to assume that someone markets her skill.

Even now, she reads to me in her soft and sibilant whisper, whilst her fingers alter the hem of—I jest not—a wedding dress. However, my charge beams contentment whilst sewing, and I admit to entertaining some jealousy. This is a being with singular talent, one might say genius, and perhaps her fate is not a fate at all. Perhaps it is an advantage. Who are we with our books and our philosophies to say that sewing cannot be as elevated an art as writing, or painting, or music? Her virtuoso fingers make me wonder what my educated and inquiring mind has bought me save the sense of having splintered from the vast mass of humankind; would it not be bliss to lose oneself in toil, and in that mass?

*

Runnymede, Sunday 13th May 1787. Morning.

Dearest friend, Lord Gravesigh has appeared, and I fear whatever meagre peace we might have enjoyed has scattered like a murder of startled crows.

Heralded only by the slamming open of the library doors, Gravesigh invaded our geography class bewigged and resplendent in military brocade, a theatrical rendition of the march of the British Empire. He is of similar frame to Pin, which makes him smaller than I, but like his daughter, he is as condensed as a lightning bolt.

He surveyed our scene, sharp nose snorting, swaying a little, sunken cheeks crimson as the grape that blushed them. I suppose he expected me to curtsy.

“What is this?” He stabbed a finger at Pin.

“This is Bernadette, sir. Your—”

“I know that, blithering idiot. What is she doing?”

“I am sewing,” hissed Pin.

“You dare address me, child?”

“You dare ignore me, Father?”

Gravesigh lurched toward Pin and I stepped to put myself between them. Behind me, Pin’s chair clattered but I did not turn, the beast of my enragement sensing that she had not fallen nor was she hiding; the creature was at my side.

My employer’s breath was rather more overpowering than his physical presence, and a good deal stronger than his resolve in the face of us mighty savages! He blustered, “Do not presume to profiteer from my daughter, woman.” Then he spun on his heel and marched out of the library, barking over his epaulettes, “No. More. Sewing.”

The next morning a note slid under my door, a slip of stationery free of anything as respectful as an envelope, bearing in scratchy script:

Woman I remind you of your contract. You will teach this animal to be a Lady. The feminine arts:

  1. Dance
  2. Drawing
  3. Music

All else is at best indulgence and at worst pernicious. I will return on Sundays to monitor progress.

And for God’s sake fix her claws.

G

So it has been since, after a fashion. Gravesigh had a maid scrub my poor girl’s fingers (for I would not), a task she undertook vigorously with baking soda and pumice stone, all but flaying off the toughened emblems of Pin’s craft.

Whoever persuaded Gravesigh that it was I exploiting his daughter has also stopped supplying clothes to repair, so we have had more time to devote to educating his ‘animal.’ If Gravesigh is aware of my recently published pamphlet on the ‘Education of Daughters,’ he has clearly not bothered to read it. I teach Pin the principles of rationalism and I teach her she is born equal to all under God’s own eyes. What she learns of the feminine arts is used only to lead her father a merry dance each Sunday evening when he dines with us.

However, Pin is suffocated without her sewing, if one can be smothered by an absence (and my loss of you has proven this to me). It wrenches my soul to see her passion and potentiality untended. Dearest Fanny, why might we only express ourselves through caring for men: to be their mothers or their doting spaniels or their courtesans? Is that all we can offer civilisation? What of my charge’s extraordinary skill? Is it to be denied for not meeting the requirements of masculine high society, or abused by the lower, who would profit from its smallest part?

And I am convinced that what I have witnessed of my charge’s abilities is but the tip of her potential.

Without her work, Pin grows almost pellucid with despondency, so I have relaxed my distrust of faery-tales to indulge her in her new, fantastical whim: the study of the castle’s ghosts.

Waterspike is draughty on even the stillest of summer days, a fact that fascinates Pin, who is convinced that her forebears walk its halls along these aerial currents. In the absence of clothes to repair, and to stimulate the rational enquiry of her phantasmagorical notions, I have set her the task of recording the routes of these peculiar puffs and breezes, and to scheduling their appearances, which seem to conform to a clockwork regularity. She has torn a silken collar from one of the dresses blossoming in her wardrobe—Gravesigh’s reward each weekend for our duplicitous show!—and turned it to the task of tracking the movements of air, tossing it into their currents, furiously annotating its path and judging—by how long the collar is airborne—the strength of the draught.

Pin’s attempt to introduce her angel kite to these zephyrs proved cumbersome, so now she fancies to improve upon it, fashioning from her old collar a miniature gossamer kite so sensitive that it would ride these delicate interior breaths. Nonsense of course, but, Fanny, I cannot deny the child the distraction this project brings, so at night we huddle about our lamp behind the bed-curtains and, whilst I write, my charge surveys the day’s measurements and makes minute and strange alterations to her silk construction.

*

Runnymede, Sunday 13th May 1787. Evening.

Sweet friend, my hubris was mistimed. My last missive was lit by the dawn, and this by dusk, and how our fates are altered by the sun’s fundamental arc.

Let me first tell you of Pin’s book of ghosts: the dread weed flowering from the blasted desert where her talents used to grow.

My girl took all I taught her of the principles of architectural draughtsmanship and has etched each floor of the castle, including its hallways and chambers and all the nooks and crannies we could measure. Though her scale is wayward, her detailing is precise and finely inked. Upon this, in various shades of pastel, she has marked the flow of her ‘Ghosts,’ coloured according to the times of their appearances. It is a singular document of such fidelity that she can now predict when and where a draught will occur.

However, there is one strong draught that pre-occupies her. It runs from an attic room, down the stairs to the entrance hall every day at eleven-twenty. It is drawn thickly in Pin’s book and, when I asked her why it should be so highlighted, she shrugged and let her hair drape between us.

Nevertheless, this morning Pin took me to the dismal attic at the source of this largest draught. The airless, shuttered bed-chamber was once used by servants when the household was larger. Now it is occupied solely by a grimly stained bed and spiders, which crawled upon our necks whilst she counted the seconds off my pocket-watch. At precisely eleven-twenty she launched her chamber-kite into dead air.

The delicately cupped construction floated, slowly spinning, toward the ground like a dashed hope…only to be suddenly born aloft.

Sweet friend, I confess to a rise of goosebumps as the silk floated before our eyes like a jellyfish in a pool of air. Pin squeaked and clamped her hands to her mouth. For several held breaths, the kite moved upon its draught with an eerie agency under our astonished gazes, before it darted out of the room.

We gave chase as the kite swooped along the hallway, down first the servants’ stair and then the grand staircase into the entrance hall. The object fled toward the castle doors and as we ran after it a girlish excitement overflowed me. I squealed as loudly as Pin, and knew joy for the first time in many months.

Then the castle doors burst open and in blew the storm that is Gravesigh. I had quite forgotten today is Sunday.

The man stopped abruptly at our odd greeting, but only to frown cross-eyed at the doll’s kite as it flung itself into his face like a faery gauntlet. He growled thunder, screwed the silken sprite in one fist and marched past us. Then, in passing the hallway’s crested fireplace, he flung Pin’s meticulous handiwork—and our happiness—into the flames.

Fanny, tonight, Pin sleeps not beside me. Framed by the rusted mullions of my window, her angel kite soars across half the Thames to haunt the convent’s rooftops, and whilst I persuade myself this is but a message of longing for her old friend, no different to my letters to you, I am pricked to my core that Pin seeks not comfort from me.

*

Runnymede, Sunday 13th May 1787. Night.

I am woken by a fearful dream of your death-bed, beloved Frances. That ghastly morning in Lisbon, where you lay fighting for each breath, drowning in your affliction and oblivious to me whilst I lied to you that your child was well, and that you would be, too. Your husband was absent, and I fought down anger at how only women can carry life and at what risks to ourselves we suffer to bring it into the world. Men would not stand for it. They would turn their powers of invention, and their wealth and their swathes of time free of domestic duties, to devising a mechanism by which the pain and danger of growing a child inside themselves could be avoided. They would construct unholy monsters rather than undergo our peril.

Then, dearest Fanny, you screamed; and I wish that this horrific cry were a product of my imagination and not a torturing memory. I must have screamed too, for a rapid thump of bare feet along the hall brought Pin to my side once more. We held each other, and I know not why, because it was not like us to do so, but we wept.

*

Blackfriars, Thursday 24th May 1787.

Sweet friend, more than a week has passed in but a day.

Pin was not to be deterred by her father’s disapproval or by losing her prototype. The success of her kite lit a lamp in her, a lamp that burned both night and day for the rest of the following week.

That Sunday night our wet embrace was broken by the footsteps of her father’s departure, whereupon Pin leapt from our bed and disappeared from the chamber, to return with an armload of silk.

“Father’s undershirts,” she said. “Help me.” She set upon tearing them to pieces. I know not which surprised me more—Pin’s thievery and vandalism, or a military uniform concealing such dainty underclothes. There was a terrible catharsis, though, in ripping this refined masculinity to pieces, as if in doing so we might destroy the very fabric of Mankind.

Even so, after some time of this I grew weary, and urged my charge to retire, but she merely blinked and pulled her needle from her stocking.

Pin’s dread purpose eluded me at the time or I might have worked harder to calm her, but her father’s disapproval piqued me, so I helped on, albeit as a troglodyte might aid a maestro. I tidied and proffered and bandaged her newly softened, bloodied fingers as they whirred throughout the night. Then, during the daylight hours I forfended servants with excuses of sickness and demanded our meals be brought to my chamber, for once glad of a governess’s higher station in the household. Soon, day and night dissolved into perpetual twilight, or an underwater dim, as if our conspiring mother-moon had drawn the high tide over Waterspike itself to conceal her daughters’ defiant industry.

It is with difficulty I describe Pin’s emergent construction. Part wedding gown, part swaddling, part death-shroud. Curlicues of couching entwined its surface, I believe not for decoration, so much as to mould the sheer fabric so it bore its own weight aloft. The echo of my livid nightmare—of life created and of life lost—lingered and turned this painstaking labour into a sublime parturition. Or so it seemed after many nights without adequate repose. Somehow my charge stitched on, even as her eyes swam back into her head in a halfling kind of sleep, but I grew agitated and fearful of what nature of life we were to create, for not all life is wholesome.

But under the supremacy of my charge’s skill, she and I had exchanged roles; I dared not ask for what we worked, and trusted with the heart of a child that Pin’s own heart was pure, until the peal of the convent’s church-bell heralded Sunday morning and her work seemed complete. Pin folded her construction like a votive offering upon one hand, and offered me her other.

Gritty of eye and dishevelled, we returned to the fetid attic-room. Fanny, I had not even shoes upon my feet, and my shivering jangled the pocket-watch I held to the darkly radiant countenance of my tiny master. Finally, she released a sigh—that to my buzzing senses seemed such a prayer that I uttered “Amen” after it—and released her construction.

After a fleeting slump, the silk floated before us, a writhing knot, struggling to find its shape and be borne on—born in—the cold draught. My instinct that this draught was a breath, forever exhaled, was so deep that, when the wind abruptly intensified, I flinched as if at a wolf’s howl or a babe’s cry. The creation snapped taut above us: a figure. A mute, shrouded hollow of mortal terror, and rage.

Pin’s hot hands squeezed mine enough to numb my fingers. No excited squeak from her this time; her head was lowered as if at a graveside, her silver hair a veil. I stooped too, under the silent force of the creation’s fear and fury. I stooped out of respect, and of sisterhood. I stooped as I did for your last breath my dearest, departed friend.

The incarnation slid past us on its deathly current, and we followed it out into the hall and down the servants’ stairs, its progress but a whisper of silk on damp stone. A clattering below announced a servant’s flight as we appeared at the sweeping main stair, then the manservant arrived, axe held aloft for a wobbling moment, before he fled also.

We greeted Lord Gravesigh at the castle door, and froze him to the flagstones. His mouth gaped, but before he could utter a sound the apparition swooped. It smothered his entire body, and tangled in his flailing limbs, choking his growls to pig’s squeals as the silk drew tight to his face. His legs unhinged, and he dropped, his gasping mouth smoothed to a pulsing concavity.

Pin charged to his side, as if to aid her father, but it was to get closer to his ear.

“’Tis but my mother,” hissed the girl. “Who you used. Who you left to die.”

With a roar, Gravesigh struggled to his feet and, clawing at his muffled face, blundered backwards out of the castle doors.

Dear friend, my numbed senses cleared in a flash. I ran forward to steady him, but his form was slick with silk and I could gain no purchase. With sickening cracks, he tumbled backwards down the castle’s perilous steps, to be tossed onto the spit below, inert. Crimson blooms flowered on his blank, mummified form.

We let the river’s moon-tide take him.

*

Thus, I am the castle governess no more, for we left Waterspike to its restless spirits and the Thames. Pin returned to her beloved Sister Miriam and to find Mother Superior had withdrawn to solitary reflection, following the apparition of an angel during a young postulant’s penitential beating. Pin has taken to weaving the silk of spiders, for what reason I know not; nor do I want to know.

I have decided not to live as a woman. Not in the pecuniary sense, at least. Pin has inspired me to be among the first of a new genus: a woman who earns her own living from her own creations. For me, this will be by writing.

Darling Fanny, I will not write to you again; for doing so denies your loss, which will only prolong my pain. There is not yet a postal service to heaven—where you surely reside—so I will leave these letters to futurity, to my own daughters, should they ever be, and who, I most solemnly vow, would be named one after you, and one after me.

Truly,
Mary Wollstonecraft
Blackfriars, 1788

*

Issue 17 (Spring 2018)

Story copyright © 2018 by R.M. Graves

Artwork copyright © 2018 by Paula Arwen Owen

R.M. Graves is a fiction writer and illustrator. His work has appeared in Interzone, Flash Fiction Online, Escape Pod, Bourbon Penn, and Circa Journal of Historic Fiction, among other places. He lives with his wife and two children in Camden, London—two hundred and twenty- one years and a fifteen-minute walk from Ms Wollstonecraft.

Paula Arwen Owen is an artist who works in hand-cut paper silhouettes and collage, using the contrast of darkness and light, of dreams and reality to create compelling illustrations. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons, and on book covers by authors including Cherie Priest and Catherynne M. Valente. She lives at the edge of an enchanted forest in the Catskill Mountains with her husband and a variety of creatures domestic, wild, and mythical. Paula’s unique cut-paper greeting cards, artwork, and decals are available at her Etsy shop and in retail stores.

 

 

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This entry was posted on October 31, 2018 by in Stories.
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