︎ Prev          Archive          Next ︎

Leslie Cantwell


We are fortunate to live in a time when the scientific attitude has suffused common sense, freeing one and all from the tyranny of superstition. The world, which once appeared a chaos, is now known to be a textile of cause and effect in which our own strands are interwoven—and yet, enmeshed as we are, through reason the mind is free to gaze upon the tapestry in its entirety. From this vantage point, we recognize our ancestors’ explanations of the world to be myths, mere psychological testimonies that never strove to venture beyond the realm of appearance into that of objective truth.

The following pages are a personal mythology of this kind. They were discovered on the property of Mr. Thomas Turner—an expatriate who fled our own country to dwell in the wilder lands of the south where minds are still moved by a mixture of Catholic sentiment and pagan superstition—and have made their way into my possession through a circuitous series of events. I have since translated them from their original language into English. Aside from its serving as a source of entertainment, my reason for publishing this tale is to provide you, my dear reader, with a peep into the minds of a provincial people who, though not so distant from us in time, lived their lives far from the light of reason, in a world darkened by fear and fancy.


I cannot recall how long I have been at the villa, though, in my confused state of illness, it seems as if it has been years—decades, even—since I first set foot on its impoverished soil. It is thanks to the inhabitants of this house, who have spared me no provision during my time with them, that I have regained a semblance of my past vitality. But now I must continue on my passage through this world: a passage that seems more sorrowful than ever before in light of what I leave behind. For within the timeworn walls and woodlands of this ill-fated place, I have tasted that very thing that being most desires. And although at times it has felt as if I cannot exist without it, it is against my nature to let live such a lovely thing. Furthermore, the recent illumination of an unnatural course of events has made it clear that my time to depart has come. But I will come to these events later.

The master of the house, Mr. Thomas Turner, and his longtime maid, Ms. Chiara—who had more or less assumed the rôle of lady after the death of his third wife,—had been expecting me for some time, my departure from my previous residence and subsequent arrival having been delayed by the malady from which I have yet to fully recover. In my mind I knew these two, though I had surely never met them, as echoes in my mother’s voice from a distant time. In the period leading up to her death she had sought solace with them; and I hoped that, out of pity for the child she had left behind, they might now open their doors to me. I had written them some months before offering my services in exchange for room and board—a moment of pause in the lifetime of wandering to which I had resigned myself. I can only explain the impulse behind the writing of that letter as arising from my mother—from my desire to be close to her, though she was no longer of this world. It was her life that filled my mind, her thoughts that I imagined, her likeness that gazed at me from the looking glass. Throughout my two decades of life, I’d dreamed of visiting them, as if it was there that I might come to know my mother, the origin of this miserable life.

As I approached the ancient house, I pictured it as it must have been many years ago: a happier place than it seemed now, before the blood of life had been leached from it by a series of tragedies. Its once-sprawling garden had been converted into a pasture, where the few cows and goats that made the sustenance of its current inhabitants rooted through the brush for their own. At my knock, its main door creaked open, revealing Mr. Turner framed in its place, motionless until, as if by a silent summons, a figure appeared over his shoulder: Ms. Chiara. Their countenances—which were striking in a gaunt, weatherworn sort of way—stirred a memory in the depths of my mind. Mr. Turner finally spoke, welcoming me into the house and remarking on how similar I looked to my mother, who had arrived at that very threshold nearly twenty years previously. Although he did not say so, I am sure the similarity of these two instances, separated by the span of two decades, did not escape him; she, too, had arrived in a weakened state, desperate for shelter, offering all she could give in return for a bed.

I was led through the house and directed to a room on the top floor that would be my own during my time with them. It was small and sparse, with a single bed and a window facing a forested part of the property: one of many such rooms that had been occupied by a fleet of servants in more prosperous times. My belongings were placed at the foot of the bed and pleasantries were exchanged, but I found myself declining their offer of food or drink. I had not much of an appetite and wished only to yield to the lethargy that never seemed to leave my limbs. Before shutting the door behind her, Ms. Chiara pressed a key into my hand.

“There are no dogs on the premises, so it is best to lock your door at night.”

I did so after she left, as was my habit. One quickly learns to take such precautions when one survives by working in the houses of strangers. Dogs, it turns out, seldom protect from the greatest threat, which comes not from robbers or intruders but from within the very walls that serve as shelter. This constant threat of my work, which at one point in my life must have been overwhelming but had since become ordinary, had dulled my ability to feel the excitement of my senses, as if I were separated from the world and my limbs by a thick pane of glass. I watched as my hands unpacked my other dress, nightgown, socks, placing them in the chest in the corner. Finding myself at the window, about to draw the curtains closed, I surveyed the property: wind-worn but orderly, like its keepers. The diffused light of the flat sky cast no shadow, flattening the scene before me and converting all colors into shades of grey. As I began to turn away, a figure among the trees drew my eye: a girl, probably near my own age, stood motionless as she stared into my second-story window. In that color-leeching light, she appeared a most exquisitely carved marble statue—so much so that, for a moment, I wondered to myself if she might indeed be a sculptural artifact of the garden’s past grandeur, accidentally oriented to gaze upon my window. But no, her dark locks and loose clothes trembled with the slight breeze that broke the stillness. I know not how long we stood, separated by that pane of glass, each drinking the other in. But when I blinked, she was gone. Her countenance burned into my mind’s eye, I undressed and, although it was not past noon, sank into a dreamless slumber.

My first days at the villa were free from work, as I was granted time to recover from the physical exhaustion of my travels. I must have spent most of that time in my room, registering the sounds of this new place as I let my heavy limbs rest in preparation for the period of labor ahead. Those hours were as thoughtless as my nights were dreamless, but finally my body righted itself and I alerted Ms. Chiara that I was ready to begin my duties—that no amount of rest would revive these limbs, nor the soul that claimed to move them. So it happened that I was walked through the routine that I was to repeat each day, composed mostly of cooking and cleaning. Ms. Chiara, once a maid herself, assured me that I would be treated well and invited me to take my meals with the other members of the household, suggesting a type of servitude different from that which I had always known. I felt a smile light my face as I nodded in thanks, not knowing whether her graciousness arose from sympathy or pity, though it soon became clear that the distinction between servant and master did not so strictly apply to this house. Ms. Chiara spent her days tending to the garden and mending, and Mr. Turner spent his days out with the animals and his evenings before the hearth with a book open on his lap, his attention on the flames of the fire before him. But the two of them are merely supporting actors in the drama that unfolded in that house.

That first day of work, I descended from cleaning the upper quarters of the house to find the marble girl sitting in the parlor, her long neck bowed like a sapling’s trunk over a small book. Struck dumb by this presence, which seemed to fill the room with a scent sweeter than flowers, I watched as she inclined her head to meet my gaze. Entranced by her eyes—emerald in tint and glimmer—I could not shake the impression that, in beholding her, I was granted a glimpse of something not of this world. The heady effect of her appearance, combined with my physical weakness, caused my legs to give out, as if in a swoon. I blinked—she was beside me, cradling my head. She wound her arm around my waist and, with surprising strength, helped me to lie down on the couch. With my head in her lap, her lovely face filled my field of vision as the warmth of her flesh flowed into my ever-cold frame.

“I’m Ava, Mr. Turner’s niece.” She said sweetly.

She brushed her fingers across my forehead, like a mother does to her child when checking for a fever—except, upon their contact with my skin, a thirst unlike any I could remember having felt before flushed through my body. As I laid there, entranced, she explained that the knowledge of my employment had been a source of great excitement for her, a girl who had come to age with no playmates other than those of her own invention or those she found in books. She must have thought me quite stupid as I lay there, staring into her face, but she continued to talk as I heard her explain that her father had died in the war before she was born, and her mother when she was but a child, so Mr. Turner had stepped into the rôle of guardian, taking the young orphan in and treating her as his own. I heard her words but could only listen to her heartbeat.

In that moment, the pane that always seemed to separate me from the rest of the world began to melt, as if it were not made of glass but of ice. When I had recovered my wits, I sat upright, a respectful distance away from her after our initial familiarity. I confided that I, too, had lost both of my parents at a young age, but had not been fortunate enough to know relatives who might shelter me. Ava asked few questions and I provided few details; in reality, there were not many to tell. My life preceding that moment seemed to me an undistinguished stretch of misery. The decade spent in the orphanage so blurred together that I could barely draw distinct events from my memory. A little clearer—but admittedly not much—were the years after I left the orphanage, years in which I drifted from household to household as hired help. I could, with much effort, recall the different houses I had worked in, the different families I had fed, the pursuits of different employers who had grabbed at me behind their wives’ backs, the inevitable notice of termination when I resisted their advances. But all of this was so faded in light of the present moment—in Ava’s light—that I felt as if, all this time, I had been merely half-alive.

From then on, Ava and I spent all of our time together when we were not working. She was my first friend, and I can only describe how I felt about her—and, I think, how she felt about me—through the analogy of the moth’s inevitable attraction to the flame. Often I would clasp my hands in my lap, intoxicated by her proximity, yearning to reach out and touch my newfound friend. I savored the moments when, sitting close, she would lean in to speak to me, her dark hair caressing my arm, as if I were her closest confidant and her words were intended only for my ears. In those weeks, thoughts of her eclipsed all thoughts of my mother. And yet, while Ava filled my mind, my mother felt closer than ever before: as if walking where she once walked and sleeping where she once slept closed the gap that yawned between us.

As Ms. Chiara had promised, I was welcomed to take meals with the family, though I often declined, as my appetite had yet to return. Nevertheless, I felt more at home—a phrase I rarely thought to use—than I could ever remember feeling. After supper, while Mr. Turner sat with his unread book on his lap, the women in the house would sit and mend. However, shortly after my arrival, Mr. Turner was gripped by an increasingly somber mood, preoccupied by the animals, three of which had been found dead since my arrival. With no apparent cause of death—not a symptom in warning, nor any sign of injury—he worried himself over the possibility of a sudden sickness that might spread to the rest of his tiny herd. But his worry struck me to be of a deeper sort, and I soon learned from Ms. Chiara that the blight that nightly picked off members of his herd had swept through before—and apparently, each time it had struck, a human death had followed. It was under these circumstances, Ava informed me, that her mother had sickened and wasted away.

“The doctor said it was a fever, but as a child I was convinced that her nightmares were what did her in,” she said. “Each night she dreamt of a heavy darkness, in which my poor mother was unable to move; then, a stabbing pain, always above her left collarbone.” Ava unconsciously touched that location on her own body, and, drawn by the graceful movement of so beautiful a limb, I watched her hand quaver in time to the pulsations of her heart as it rested there. She continued: “I remember being woken by her screams, but I was not permitted to see her for fear of contagion. She died after a few weeks of these nightly visitations.” She looked at me. “Ms. Chiara tells me that your mother went in the same manner.”

Ms. Chiara glanced up from her mending and turned to face us before she commenced speaking. “She must have been the same age as you are now, when she appeared at our door,” she said. “The villa was a different place back then, before the death of the first Mrs. Turner—untouched by the sorrow that has since peeled the paint from its walls. Your mother was on the threshold of death, and Thomas had to carry her indoors. Each day we watched her pine before the window, staring in the direction from which she had come; and each night, we waited to hear the scream that roused her from her dreams. By the time I could unlock her door, she would be staring at the foot of her bed, shivering—babbling something about darkness, something about a man. Her health declined after each episode.”

She went on to tell my mother’s history as she and Mr. Turner had pieced it together. My mother had been a maid in a fine house but had had the misfortune of being seduced by the master. When my mother learned that she was going to bear his child, the lady of the house, suddenly, and conveniently, died. The master, whose infatuation with my mother had only increased over the course of their affair, took her as his second wife before—as Ms. Chiara so bluntly put it—the warmth had left the body of his first. Facing a choice between certain poverty and a marriage marred by scandal, my mother chose the latter. Then the nightmares began, strikingly similar to those than had preceded the death of Ava’s mother: first paralysis, as if something heavy were holding her down; then always the pain, just above the collarbone, and what felt like a stream of cool water flowing into her body from that location. Then she would awaken, alone in her own chamber, calling for my father. But he never seemed to hear her cries, and she, too frightened to venture from her bed, could only wait for the sun to dispel the darkness from her room—but never again from her mind. Something, my hosts knew not what, had happened after my birth that had frightened my mother, and she had fled, deserting both her husband and her newborn daughter.

Ms. Chiara continued to speak, but I was no longer in the room with them: my imagination had taken over. As if from the very depths of my own memory, I was there in my mother’s place: I could feel the weight, the pain, the not unpleasurable sensation of ice coursing through my veins, the overwhelming urge to flee. Ava stroked my arm, and I returned to myself.

“I think that’s enough,” she said. “You look as though you need some rest.”

It was as if knowing more about my mother’s life drained my own away. In my confused state, the stairs to my chamber seemed a mountain reaching to the heavens, and Ava—my angel—half-guided and half-carried me up; but upon nearing my destination, I fell. As my sweet angel sank down with me, I heard nothing but the hymnal hum of her voice in my ear. In moments like these, in my delusional mind, I desired nothing more than to melt into her and live in her emerald eyes: to bask in her beauty forever. Yet now, suddenly, hovering over the precipice between consciousness and unconsciousness, I was in my room. Ava was tenderly undressing me, helping me into my white nightdress, her song still echoing in my ears as she put me to bed. Before she left me, she stood at the foot of the bed as if there were something she ached to say, something she yearned to do. But as I beheld her through half-closed lids, that instant of internal struggle seemed to pass, and she stood there in the dim light, as placid as a marble goddess.

All night I tossed in my bed, overcome by a need that I was unable to articulate. It was as if I were split in two: part of me remembering the thrill of Ava’s fingertips on my neck as she had helped me unbutton my dress; the other part reliving my mother’s tale with a vividness that frightened me.

I awoke revived, feeling well enough to accompany Ava on her morning stroll; but when my friend finally appeared, she appeared, to my worry, to have changed overnight. Her green eyes seemed dimmed, ringed by purple circles; her shoulders were bowed, as if weary from a burden; her steps were short; her feet shuffled as she moved. She must have been able to read the anxiety on my face, for she addressed it with a wave of her hand.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I look awful, but only because I didn’t sleep well last night. My dreams kept me awake.” But her voice was hollow and her face pinched.

I led her to a bench on the edge of the pasture. As we drew near, the horses became agitated and fled our presence. Ava told me nothing more of her dreams, but as she sank to sit on the bench, my mind whirled and I could not help but connect the omen of the livestock deaths with her sudden change.

Ava retired early that evening. Neither Ms. Chiara nor Mr. Turner seemed to sense anything amiss, and Ava—protesting that she was simply tired—did not wish to alarm them. Desperately seeking distraction, I asked Ms. Chiara to continue with my mother’s story, and she obliged me.

Ms. Chiara, then a young maid, had served as my mother’s caretaker during her stay, though for most of that time my mother’s fever kept her in a world of her own: a world that seemed to dance between life and death. As time passed, her dreams occurred less frequently, but the bewilderment they produced did not dissipate, but merely transformed into an all-consuming grief. Day in and day out, my mother would stare out the window, as if wavering between longing to return and desperation to continue her flight.

One evening, a visitor—a man, unnaturally tall and gaunt—had arrived at the door. He’d introduced himself, but never removed his eyes from my mother, who seemed to wilt in his presence. In his arms he’d held a bundle that appeared to be a child, swaddled in a coarse linen cloth.

“My beautiful wife,” he said softly, “the time has come for you to join me. You have been frightened, and I fear that in my consuming passion for you, I am to be blamed. You are young, but we—through the sacred law of marriage—are bound together, our blood combined to create a new life.”

As my mother beheld the bundle in his arms with a lifeless expression, her husband lifted her chin, with all the gentleness of a lover, to gaze upon her face. His words and actions suggested tenderness, but his eyes expressed only hunger. “Come,” he said. “You cannot flee, for without you I cannot live. And in joining me—in fulfilling these, our vows of eternity—you too will take on a new life, an existence few have ever known.” He lowered the child into my mother’s arms, and she stared at it with empty eyes.

Ms. Chiara, having glimpsed its face for but an instant, had recoiled in horror. Dead, she had thought—an infant corpse wrapped in a shroud. But that impression had soon passed. Surely her eyes had betrayed her, she’d thought: it was only a trick of the light that had made the babe appear so pale and still.

As she told me this, she fixed me with her stare.

“Your mother went with him,” she said. “I protested, but she said that there was nothing to be done—that it was time for her to fulfill her duty and become one with her husband.” And the day after my mother left, she told me, two cows from their heard had been found dead, the blood drained from their bodies.

No one will be surprised to learn that my dreams that night were uneasy. I was crawling on all fours, away from—or toward?—something, a double shadow that loomed both behind and before. The coldness had almost taken over my body; I was going to freeze. In the no-place of dreams, I tried to call out for my mother, but Ava’s name fell from my lips: her name, her image, her body—she filled my dreaming mind, and with her came the most delicious warmth one can imagine. I threw myself into it—into her—into the arms of my mother, for they were, in this moment, the same. Warmth flowed into me, thawing my body from the pit of my stomach outward.

A scream pierced the air—whether in my dream or in reality, from myself or another, I know not. Still warm, I sank back into a dreamless sleep.

The next morning, Ms. Chiara informed me that Ava was not well: she fell ill in the night with a fever which brought with it visions of specters that continued to haunt her in the light of the morning. I admitted that I too had suffered from nightmares, which slipped away as I tried to recall them, and nodded when Ms. Chiara attributed them to the conversations about my mother’s illness––mere associations of the mind.

Climbing the stairs to Ava’s room, I felt my mind to be divided. There was a part of me—most of me—that wanted nothing more than to be near my ill friend, to hold her hand and stroke her hair as she had done for me when we first met. But the other part, a dark shadow in my heart, was loath to see her—not because of her dream, nor because of the illness, nor even because of the prospect of losing her. Something inside of me, something beneath consciousness, was gathering itself. But all I could grasp of it was a shapeless sense of foreboding.

I found Ava in her bed like an angel with wings outstretched, her long dark hair spread around her body. A faint smile fluttered across her face when she saw me—but only momentarily, for it quickly morphed into a look of confusion, then into what I can only describe as horror. The scream from my dream pierced the air. Before I knew it, I had been driven from the room and the door slammed in my face, the sounds of Ava’s sobs traveling through the walls.

Over the following days my vitality returned while Ava’s diminished, and my heart and mind sank deeper and deeper into despair. Each night I had the same dream; each night I was jolted from it by Ava’s scream before slipping into a satisfied sleep. Each day, a wordless desire—like that of hunger, but deeper—consumed me; each day, Ava refused more forcefully to see me. Mr. Turner and Ms. Chiara turned chill, their minds—I assumed—occupied by the failing health of their ward. I could not help but taste a hint of suspicion in Ms. Chiara’s attitude toward me, as if she suspected I were the cause of this mysterious illness. Little did she know, I thought to myself, of my love for Ava—my need for her—which only swelled while we were apart.

And yet I knew my time at the villa was nearing its end. I could not put off my wanderings much longer, now that my strength had returned; and while part of me dreaded leaving my beloved behind, that other part of me knew that it was her fate to join me.

On what I knew was to be my last night at the villa, the dream began before I fell asleep. Shrouded in darkness I slipped out of my room, passing through my locked door as if it were made of mist, and into Ava’s chamber. My lovely lady rested on white sheets, her lamp left burning in the hope that its light would ward off the spirit that haunted her dreams and sipped her life away each night.

My mind was lucid for the first time since my last feast, and I could again remember the strange events of my long but ever-young life. Before the change, I remembered fearing that which visited me in the darkness each night, the horror of learning how closely love and evil are bound, the repulsion of the death that their union produced. I recalled waking up, changed, and the first time I quenched the thirst that would forever guide my eternal wandering. I saw the others who had fed me, who had slipped away as I had kissed their lovely necks. But none had been so lovely as Ava, and none had thirsted for me as I had thirsted for her.

I sank onto her bed and buried my face in her sweet-smelling neck. The light went out as I drank in our final embrace. When it was over, I stood at the foot of her bed; my crimson nightgown, warm and damp, clung to my skin. Ava’s stillness revived my first impression of her: standing still in the garden, bathed in the color-leeching light in which she had appeared a statue, the darkness of the trees spreading out around her, as even now the spreading crimson darkened her once-white sheets.