This story is dedicated to Charlotte Brontë and Jean Rhys.
She has often set fires. It is the power she has, in this cold place, to kindle fire upwards from stone, and from fire all things are born—light, morning, hatred, tumult, cries and running feet, and perhaps, one day, freedom. It is also her joy. What can you grow out of floorboards, flagstones, in the narrowness of corridors, under a roof centuries old? Bedclothes become fire. Hangings become fire. Anything can become fire. She nurses a flame along dark walls and sets it down to grow. She hopes that this will be the one to rise upwards and upwards and take them all in. But when the time comes she does not want it to take her. She runs. To the top of the house, and she shouts, and now nobody tells her less noise, nobody tries to keep her quiet as her screaming hits the same inhuman note as the roar of the fire. He scrambles towards her, faceless shape backlit by fire, he is calling her name. That the fire may sear her to ash and the ash be blown away by the wind. She knows what he wants. She steps out.
The sexton’s daughters, Anne and Jessie, sort through a basket of screws and cogs. Anne picks out the shiniest ones, Jessie the ones that look the oldest. Their father comes in from digging a grave and shouts at them—that was not what he wanted at all, not what he asked them to do. But he never told them what to do. Their grandfather owns a mill in Millcote but their father will never have it; his proclivities, their grandfather says, render him ineligible for a position of authority, so they all came to Hay, and their father digs graves and they no longer see their grandmother, who grew sweetpeas and has no other grandchildren. Jessie and Anne run wild. Their mother is dead. They never study their books and their father gives them tasks like sorting screws, or making a dress for his shining lady, his finest work, he says, the one the big house broke.
The revenant Mrs. Rochester has forgotten how to dream. Memory is simple, each part of her remembers. Her cogs remember their casting, her left eye remembers its grinding. Her skull remembers giving way to the ground. Her skin remembers. She had a red dress. Then they, her husband and her keepers, shrouded her body in the thinnest of things, as if tying and buttoning was hiding. Wrapper, nightdress, winding-sheet. Muslin, cotton, white, white. Damp grey twilight, the earth breathing out night over Thornfield, the stone of the floor going from golden to dark and the drag of her gown over it as she walks, light, almost nothing. Sleep comes to everybody but her. Her wardress asleep. On all the floors of the house a score of sleepers. The fumes of alcohol and juniper. The body remembers. It remembers rain. Remembers her husband’s body, the grain of his skin. His scent.
She can sleep and she can remember. She can eat a cake of bread and read from a book. To the children, the two girls, this is enchanting and they often come close to touch her, to see the miracle of her frame, the turning brass cogs, the stretched translucent hide, the bolted jaw. They are afraid and they touch her arm and then bolt away, giggling. She could sweep out one arm and smash them against the wall of the cottage without even blinking. Instead she leans over the table, drawing mountains, drawing a river. They come closer, and do not dart away. She draws jasmine, draws orchids, and one of the little girls, the brown-eyed one, asks her what she is drawing, and she says, flowers from my home. Before long they are friends.
She cannot dream. She sleeps and wakes suddenly each morning as if it was only a second ago she closed her eyes; she hates it. Each part of her remembers but the parts of her do not make a whole, they only remember themselves and they circle those memories round and round like little pistons, like wheels turning in place. Her bones remember the damp that soaked into them in the night they spent underground, the chill of the earth that has crept inside her. Her chest remembers the boiling liquid feeling of hate filling it up, but the hate is not hers; she carries it for someone else. It is heavy, she is always conscious of it. One evening she looks at the hazel-eyed girl who is sitting at the table with her, eating soup, and asks her, who do I carry this heart for? The girl only looks at her, face blank and shadowed in the dancing firelight.
The heart carries her away, towards something, away from the dim-lit cottage and the little girls, to Millcote.
The talented Mrs. Cosway can lift a haycart with one arm. She can arm-wrestle a strongman and beat him in less than three seconds. She could fight a tiger, but there is no tiger in Millcote. Nevertheless when a stray dog leaps out at her when she is walking in the town she kills it with one kick—and is sorry afterwards, but does not let anyone see, because the more ferocious her audience believes her to be the more they pay to see her bend bars and crush millstones. Gold coins, changed from the coppers of factory hands and grocers’ boys, pile in the strongbox under the bed in the room above the apothecary’s shop where no-one dares set foot but her. The streets of Millcote are muddy and wet in winter. The air is harsh in her nose and her throat. The shops sell stuff and boots, tea and potatoes, muddy-coloured things. One day she sees two ladies in the street, walking arm-in-arm, their grey coats trimmed with blue and green. She follows them as if they are lanterns bobbing through a mist. She goes into the shop where they go, watches them look at rain-coloured ribbons, and she buys herself a length of soft red velvet, and folds it up, and locks it in her trunk.
Anne and Jessie’s father’s shining lady has gone. One of the village boys says she has gone to live in Millcote, and you can go and see her for a penny if you don’t mind standing at the back. They have no pennies. They miss her quiet in the cottage in the evenings, the way their father lowered his voice around her. Her brass-gold and her muslin dress. Jessie says if she doesn’t want to live with us I don’t care for her, but Anne dreams of running away to the town to see her. Their father never makes anything so good again. He works till long after midnight every night for half a year, burning down tallow candles. He stops burying the bodies of the parish, leaves them in the rain as if they will get up and walk again, and the girls’ grandmother takes them to live in Millcote. They have their own muslin dresses there, and one day Anne sees an old bill with a picture of her friend on it, but it is from many months ago, and the talented Mrs. Cosway, they say, has gone to London.
It is a wonder this city is not lit up like a fire, with all the food and fuel that pours into it every day. She walks through dockyards and past warehouses, down alleys. She stands before the windows of houses. Nobody sees her.
After the first look they seem not to see her.
If you see everything, sooner or later you see something someone would rather no-one knew, and other things some people will pay to know. You see men who would be better off dead, and you meet other men who agree.
She is strong and swift, and silent, and her nerve never breaks. London was built, stone by stone, on the work of people like her. People like her have always had friends. It takes a long time, but she is spoken of in clubs and drawing-rooms, and it seems better to invite her to parties and offer her every attention. The first time she appears silence falls at the sight of her—the glow of costly wax candles on the roughness of her borrowed skin, the click and whir of her machinery as she turns when someone speaks to her. But there is her gold, too, the shine of her, and the jewels on her human hand, and her bare metal hand that could crush a man’s throat. But she is always gentle. And soft-spoken. She shakes hands with a cabinet minister, and the minister’s wife calls on her next day. She goes home from parties alone.
She lives in a set of rooms that she fills slowly with bright colours. Blue for the sea, and pink for coralita, green for ferns, the colours of moving, living things that ease the stillness of books and pictures and mahogany furniture, of a solitary home. Sometimes she pays a girl to come and play the piano. She drinks tea and sometimes, on a Sunday, rum, but that not often, because it wakes a maddening restlessness in her veins and she fears she might do something foolish. She sells deaths, buys secrets. She goes to the markets early in the dark mornings when the boys are still half-asleep, rubbing their eyes.
Through the streets on sunny days and windy ones, and through the houses burning coal and tallow, wax and wood, houses of a million throats swallowing down bread and onions and brandy and potatoes and pork pies and wine and gruel until the city seems an ocean vaster than the one that brought her here, an ocean of hearts loving and lost and triumphant and broken, breaking around her.
And her own heart? That lies in her chest, jumping, like a hot coal tossed from hand to hand, propelling her onwards.
The celebrated Mrs. Cosway is invited to a party in her honour. She has a red dress made from a length of velvet she bought once. Before it fades. Her earrings are drops of gold and ruby, one hooked through flesh, one tied onto brass with silk threads too fine to see. Smiles and hands greet her as she steps into the great room. The ceilings are lofty, the clusters of pale roses like clouds, the great chandelier hangs in a thousand drops each one pure as new ice. She dances beneath it with a series of men, interchangeable smiles and arms in dark superfine, between the ladies white-necked like swans—steps and turns until her cogs spin faster and faster and her gears click and shift faster and faster—until a whisper of cool air drives her out onto the balcony, where faces above dresses and coats smile and the low tones of confidential talk fill the air, where the city lies beneath, a lamplit darkness, stones wet from summer rain. The wind rises for a moment, rocks the hanging lamps, and the ladies laugh or fall quiet, and she closes her eyes. The air smells of the country, hay and river-water, of places she has never been. There is a pain alight in her chest. As if her heart was a cooled ember and the wind blew across it and stirred it to a red glow. She opens her eyes.
It is time now.
The coach drives through the quiet summer morning, and she holds her small case in her arms. There is no fire in her now, only every nerve and wire strained taut towards the end of this journey. An old lady on one side of her, a farmer’s son on the other; they do not speak. Every beat of her heart, every step she has taken has led her towards this day. She leans over her case as if she can make the overworked horses go faster. It is a journey of days. Outside the coach go by the green hedgerows, the farm fields, the towns. The yellow sun rises higher in the sky.
She dreamed last night. She dreamed of a man’s scent, the grain of his skin. That he pulled her closer till there was no world between them. She dreamed that his hatred was no more than a bad dream, that he smiled for her and only her, but even before she woke his face turned empty again, to that emptiness that annihilates everything. Ash in his eyes and broken stone.
For a day she watches them. She kneels in the woods. A man who walks slowly, his eyes shaded. A small woman, gold watch-chain, pale-blue dress. They stroll on the empty lawn before the house, arm-in-arm. She sees them move before the open windows of the parlour, the bedroom. The woman carries a baby out onto the lawn before the house. She stands looking at the circle of trees and the sky above them. The day is mild, and when they go to dine in the evening they leave the windows and the door standing open.
The baby lies on white linen, and when she approaches his cradle he opens his eyes. They are round and dark. He does not cry. She steps closer, and slides her arms beneath his small weight. She lifts him, and draws him close against her ticking heart.
Story copyright © 2018 by Laura Friis
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Carol Wellart
Having spent the last five years hauling herself, her partner, and their books between Vancouver, Galway, Yorkshire, Donegal, and West Cork, Laura Friis now writes and studies in Manchester, England, ably assisted by her two-year-old. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and she is one of the co-editors of Samovar, the SFF in translation magazine.
Carol Wellart is a Czech artist and painter creating predominantly wildlife themes, nature studies, and literary characters. She’s mostly inspired by the curious shapes and materials from nature, but literature is still the main source. Painting and drawing were always the most important things for her, and visiting the local art school helped her understand new techniques and the “science” of the colour mediums. Carol is the award- winning artist of the Best Book Cover in 2015 in Czechia. Her work has been published in magazines such as Spirituality & Health, International Wolf, and Orion.