Author: ACleverName PM
The Persian was old when he spoke to Leroux and may have gotten a few facts about the TrapDoor Lover muddled, for example his birthplace, his father's profession. Here are the details reworked for posterity. A threepart story from the POV of Erik's fathRated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Angst - Erik & Persian/Daroga - Chapters: 2 - Words: 18,480 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 01-04-07 - Published: 09-14-06 - id: 3153374
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A story of the Phantom of the Opera
i. Bringing to Birth
"We summoned not the Silent Guest,
And no man spake his name;
By lips unseen our Cup was pressed,
And mid the merry song and jest,
The Uninvited came."
--James Jeffrey Hoche
She was in no way prepared to give birth.
Physically there was nothing wrong with my wife. The physician I had brought in agreed, but it was her spirit and emotional state that complicated matters. She was seventeen and though there were younger mothers made, there had been none made in quite the circumstances as Marthe. This was all of my own doing, and I blamed no one so much as myself.
We met at an informal gathering in Grenoble; a tedious coming-out party, perhaps an amateur theatrical performance, I can scarcely recall. She told me of herself as she sipped on sugared wine on a very warm summer evening, but her origins I was scarcely thinking of. To me, then, what counted was beauty, and Marthe was very beautiful. Excellent skin and a fine, thin waist. The way she moved her hands expressively was unmatched, and this I could say because I was in those days—forgive my vulgarity—a great admirer of women. Marthe was neither the first nor the last whose charms inflamed me and whose attentions I sought. In Grenoble where I ran a chestnut-hulling factory, desire was easily fulfilled for every manner of female company.
I did not then realize her youth—some twelve years my junior—and though she had not impressed me with any qualities other than her beauty, to say I was besotted with her this very first meeting was accurate. Her friends quickly swept her away into the crowd, preventing me from speaking to her more profoundly, and inflaming my desire. A few evenings later we attended another function, and I escorted her home in my carriage. God help me, things were done that night that that did irreparable, unforeseen damage. I thought her coy, not inexperienced. Like the others I had seduced, I thought her cognizant and capable of the measures required to temper such flames of passion.
I did not much expect to see her again after that, certainly not intimately. My passions had been sated, and she was, she told me, to return with her parents to their summer home, remote and high in the mountains. Surprise greeted me some three weeks later when I received a letter from Marthe. Although I had enjoyed many women's intimacy before her, she was the first to send such a letter. What she said, of course, was that she was a practicing Catholic, had been a virgin until that night, and that she was now undoubtedly carrying a child. Her parents demanded that I marry her.
I realized that my own religious teachings, so long dormant, dictated that I must, for reasons of morality and duty, marry Marthe as her parents had insisted. I looked to the arrangement neither with bitterness nor enthusiasm: I had been in thrall too long to my own bestial passions, and the time for retribution, a little earlier than expected, had arrived.
Marthe's parents could hardly have been pleased to find their future son-in-law a Protestant, English on his mother's side. "You will convert, of course," her father, M. Descloitres, had said firmly. (Where Marthe had received her engaging plumpness, I could hardly tell; her parents were thin and reedy like me and therefore their commands were less than threatening.) Outwardly, I did convert, and we were married with all the Catholic trappings. I agreed to their other conditions as well, that we would live out of the city, out of temptation's reach.
This I did willingly, not out of any great love of Marthe, but the certainty that this was the situation I had inherited. If it were not too unchristian to say, I wonder if my wife's parents had not allowed her to be led into such a situation, for I quickly found that, even giving into account her youth, she was more foolish and flighty-headed than most. She had no skills of which to speak except a common interest in embroidery; she could not manage a household with any effectuality, and her mind often wandered. It was perhaps unreasonable for all parties involved to have thought our marriage would be a success, but we managed. That she was often bored at home I was certain; that she took to strange habits is undeniable. Isolated from the delights of town with only my work and my wife to command my attention, I did my best to make her happy. I was faithful to her, at least that much could be said.
My one condition upon the marriage was that we would not live with my wife's parents. I would not concede to have their withering influence overhanging us, especially if we were to raise our child. For a time, I kept them at bay.
I had known next to nothing of Marthe's personal habits and likes when I stood at the altar next to her. I soon found we shared a surprising common interest. My wife was fond of music and, above all, the theatre. I myself had spent my formative youth as an aficionado of opera growing up in Paris. I purchased a cottage piano and, though she never played well, it was a genuine delight to come home in the evenings and hear her playing. We went to the theatre and to concerts as often as we could.
Though the doctor I had summoned from Lyon cautioned against it, I gave in to Marthe's insistent pleading to see a new Swedish play, Gustave, some three weeks before the predicted date of birth. Her parents would not have allowed her to be exposed to such excitement in her confinement, and if I had not been so weak I would not have gone to the trouble of it.
The spring air must have brought on labor, not the play, which was greatly uninteresting. But as the doctor helped me return Marthe to her confinement bed, I noticed, alarmed, that, though her young body was hale, her mind was turning in directions that were hardly appropriate for a woman about to give birth. She was recounting as fact tales she must have read in a romance, and was referring to future events she could not possibly know about. She was speaking of the blighted night of this child's conception, in no uncertain terms, when the doctor blushed and said, "She is, sir, under great duress."
I had never attended a birth before, but her speech made me greatly uneasy. It did not seem natural. Labor was long but uncomplicated. It was fraught with tension, however, as my wife was nearly hysterical. Her maid had full charge of controlling her as the doctor brought my child out to me. He looked grave and disappointed.
"I'm afraid, M. Lucas, that the child is dead." I looked at the grayish bundle in his arms.
"Oh," I said. I cannot say what I felt at that moment. The doctor was looking down at the infant in something approaching horror. I looked over his shoulder. "Dear God . . . it's deformed," I said, unable to disguise the disgust in my voice. Another might have called it a demon child: its thin limp body was translucent with veins, its face was hardly a face at all—its eyelids were small and unable to disguise the cavernous holes of its eyes, its skeletal, flaking skin, lack of nose and near lack of lips. I was glad it was dead—it looked dead! I was not Catholic and I was not superstitious, and my own father a doctor and scientist of the Enlightened age.
"We shall have to tell my wife," I mused. "But not now, the state that she's in—"
We were both startled as the thing—the stillborn child—moved its malformed limbs lurchingly and gave a loud cry. I felt my color draining. It wasn't dead. My child, this hideous thing, was not dead. The doctor and I looked at each other helplessly.
"It—it—it's—" I was going to say that it wasn't dead after all, but the redundancy of the remark was exceeded only by the sickening fear in my voice. The child howled and moved in the doctor's arms. I swallowed. "I—"
"My son! Robert, bring me my son!" I felt my arms go numb with pins and needles. Marthe was asking for her child. She had heard him cry. The healthy boy she was no doubt expecting contrasted so tellingly with the twisted thing before me, I could not . . .
"Robert!" She was angry now, I could hear her arguing with the maid. "My baby—where is my baby?"
I looked at the doctor. "It is—it is a boy?"
He dutifully moved aside the swaddling clothes and was searching for such a long time that I began to wonder. "Yes," he said firmly. "You have a son."
My revulsion was inhuman, that such a thing should be called my son. Overwhelming hatred poured from my depths to curse this ugly abomination. This, then, was my punishment, my Divine judgment. My honorable conduct in marriage had not been enough to obliterate the stain of my sin. This was the product of it, as ugly as I could have ever imagined it.
"She has a right to know." It was the doctor's voice jarring me to the reality of the bawling baby. "Forgive me, sir, but you cannot hide this from your wife." Privately I thought I could hide it, and hide it permanently, but the doctor's look was dark and unforgiving.
"You carry him," I said, opening the doors to my wife's confinement chamber. She was still doing battle with the maid, fighting her as best she could through her exhaustion and hysteria.
"Yes, bring me my son," she sobbed with such an outpouring of happiness and relief I wondered if this was feeling of one's heart breaking. The doctor walked slowly the length of the bed, I following, while my wife pitifully opened her arms to receive this dried-up cadaver—it still cried loudly. The detached part of me watching the scene was genuinely curious as to how my wife might receive our deformed offspring.
"Your son, Madame," said the doctor, lowering the howling bundle and trembling, despite himself.
Marthe looked, and for a moment she was very still. Then she was very calmly angry. "Why do you bring me dead things, Doctor?" she asked. "What is this appalling dead thing? I want to see my son, not to be made sick." She pushed the bundle away irritatedly, bringing her hand to her mouth to ward off vomiting. "I'll positively be made sick!" The maid must have caught a glimpse because she ran from the room, crossing herself.
The doctor looked pale. He moved the child from my wife's bedside, then turned to me helplessly. Before I could say something, Marthe was moaning and twisting about as though she would faint. "Here, take him," he said, handing me my repulsive burden. If I had any idea of dropping him, instinct resisted it. The doctor rushed to my wife; I stood, numb. "Take him to his cradle," demanded the doctor, "and bring her some smelling salts! Quickly!"
I left my as-yet-unnamed son in the cold, dark nursery without any compunction and fetched the smelling salts. As she recovered, my wife said, "Robert, I just had a horrible dream! That our baby was exceedingly ugly—deformed, even." I stood very still, though her hand sought mine. I stiffened, expecting my wife now to contract madness so severe it made everything before seem trifling. Then I realized this was the only defense she had, the only way she could understand this affliction.
The doctor was gathering his instruments. "You had better name him," he said simply. The man, for whatever reason, wished to ensure our abominable son lasted out the day. "I can arrange, if it is your wish, for a priest who will ask no questions."
I cleared my throat, suddenly feeling very old. "Marthe, my dear?"
"Yes? You know, Robert, that I am frightfully exhausted!"
"Yes, I know. What would you like to name the baby?"
"Erik," she said.
Her voice was dreamy. "The play, don't you remember?"
I would just as soon name our son something foreign. I bid her good night after this, seeing the doctor to the door. The man was agitated beyond belief, and I offered him brandy. He refused, on the point of saying something to me, but could not get it out. To this day I don't know if he was trying to tell me to kill Erik or pleading with me to spare his life.
It was some time later that I realized Erik was still in the nursery alone. My wife safely put to bed and none of the servants aware of his existence save the maid, I had forgotten him. The brandy that the doctor had refused I soon poured for myself, and the bottle I took with me to the nursery.
Erik was still crying, though not as lustily, making the cradle rock back and forth with the force of his thrashings. I stared at him for awhile, wondering how a human being could be quite so ugly. I stood up over the cradle, studying the cavernous depths around his eyes, the cracked yellow ulcerated skin. I reached down to touch him.
To smother him in his bedclothes would now be so easy—and imminently reasonable. I would only be depriving him of a life filled with hardship and pain. Surely it was service to him, and to his mother, who could not even acknowledge his existence! I covered the baby's mouth with the cloth and felt him fighting fiercely for air. I waited for the moment for him to cease his struggles—the only ones who had yet seen him were the doctor, my wife, the maid and me. Who would be there to deny me if I said my child had died his first night? He was sickly-looking and as yet unfed. I kept the cloth covering his nose and mouth.
I held it there, oh, so long I held it. Then . . . something in me relented. I could not kill my own son! Trembling, I lifted the cloth away as Erik chokingly sucked in air. I could not—not to save him pain, nor anyone else the profound trouble his life would bring. He was my sin—my burden. He was God's punishment to me—and I must bear him as best I could.
No doubt weakened by his near-death experience, Erik had stopped crying and was whimpering in a defeated, sulky way. I tried not to look at his face as I lifted him into my arms. I held him for a few moments, coldly, thinking of the joy new fathers were supposed to feel, holding their sons. Strangely, the child fell asleep in my arms. I settled him back into his cradle, made note to get milk for him when he woke—it would have to be brébis, not his mother's—and sat down with the brandy for a long night of planning.
He was confined to my care, and I must be both father and teacher to him. I had long been considering giving over the foremanship of my factory to my secretary, a man a bit older than myself but steady and dependable. If he would run the day-to-day logistics, I could still make enough to keep our moderate lifestyle. I could leave the house but rarely. We were isolated enough that callers were few. I would inform my wife's parents that the baby had died. I would ensure above all else that they did not learn of Erik's existence. The effects could be disastrous.
And how to manage Marthe's revulsion for her child? For a few days I kept Erik hidden in the nursery. I warned the servants, on pain of dismissal, not to tell my wife of his existence. She was recovering slowly in her bedchamber and had turned to embroidery to fill her time, as I had predicted. One morning I came to her.
"That's very pretty."
"Marthe, my dear?"
"Could you embroider something for me?" She looked up, startled. I had never ventured any opinion into her pastimes before. "A mask," I said slowly, "about this big?"
"A mask the size of a baby's face."
Of what she had persuaded herself, I knew not. Did she connect the horrible deformed thing with her son? Did she think her son had died? "For a baby's face? How absurd."
"I confess, it is for your son. The sunlight is painful on his newborn skin, you see, and we must shelter that perfect countenance from harm." How easily I lied! Why did she believe me?
"May I make it . . . beautiful?"
I nodded. "Make it what you will, Marthe." She set down her sampler and reached for scissors and dun cloth. "I'll begin now," she said. "I want to see him, you know. It was most wrong of you to take him away from me."
"Yes, I know. Finish his mask, darling, and I'll move his cradle to your chamber."
She accepted it without question, for perhaps she well knew to do otherwise was folly. She could be happy and deceive herself that the mask Erik wore did not conceal a monster.
But I could not.
It is hard to imagine how so many years can pass by so quickly, when one lives in such isolation. After I placed Marthe's mask upon Erik's face, we began our life together. I continued to work for as long as I could leave Erik in the care of his mother and the nursemaid Mme Girot. His precocity quickly made it apparent I must teach him as his constant companion, lest his intelligence be given to boredom or mischievousness. There was no doubt that he was uncannily clever from when he first began to speak at one year. Literature, grammar, history, and some mathematics I immediately gave him the groundings for. He showed a particular early aptitude for Latin. His fifth birthday he spent carrying on conversations with me entirely in Latin until his mother commanded him, out of sheer frustration, to stop. Ancient Greek and then German: I gave him the best of what I had learned, and his early fascination with languages was a particularly unnerving skill.
No longer working at the factory but managing it though my partner, I began to write treatises and observations on the natural world where we lived in isolation. I published a book, anonymously. Erik quickly responded with an interest in science. He organized experiments, and the three of us—his mother, he, and I—would occasionally walk about the hills. We might whole afternoons there as Erik filled notebooks with identification of species and observations. It was the only time he left the house.
Occasionally we would see people on these walks. I never allowed anyone to take too close an interest in Erik. If he was lonely, he did not show it—he had his parents and the servants, who had children Erik's age. He quickly tired of them, though, and would much rather be alone with a book than play with other children. He could have run away, I suppose, and we would have been virtually powerless to stop him. I think instinctually he knew that to leave his hallowed world was to provoke disaster. He sometimes spoke of seeing the outside world, but always in abstract terms.
The servants had been compelled to believe that he had a very delicate skin condition and that to remove the mask would be fatal. Whether Erik removed his mask in private I was not certain. Publicly, he slept in it, he bathed in it, he was never without it. His mother seemed to know, certainly before I did, sometimes before Erik did, when he was due for growth, and she fashioned a new mask accordingly. We kept the old ones as a sort of morbid record of his progress over the years.
Marthe and I rarely left for town, and we almost never received callers. Twice a year the doctor would report on Erik's health. I gave Erik laudanum so that he would not sense the removal of the mask. I had been optimistic that Erik's condition might improve. If anything, it appeared to get worse, sometimes erupting in sores all over his youthful body. There was nothing to be done but keep him in isolation from the outside world.
We were, curiously, happy. I never shared my wife's bed after Erik's birth, deeply afraid any more children would share his fate. Being but a man, I took one of the servants to satisfy my appetites. I was certainly discreet, and Marthe's health remained very good as we both grew older.
From his mother, Erik inherited a love for music and theatre, and from me, a fondness for opera. On the very rare occasion I took Marthe out to a play or concert—her birthday, usually---he would be very sad to be left behind. It was always a secret surprise to me that my inquisitive son never followed us out the door or disappeared permanently. Whatever you could say about Erik, he was an obedient and polite child.
When he was ten years old, however, he asked me very quietly on Christmas Day whether we could attend an opera in Lyon. Disquieted, I took him to his chamber to discuss the matter away from his mother. He told me that he had read in the newspaper that the Lyon Opera was to put on Don Giovanni at Shrovetide. He would dearly like to go, he said, this son of mine who had never asked for anything—and had never been outside the small sphere I had made for him.
"If you carefully study the logistics, I will consider it."
A vain hope to imagine he would sit idle! The next day he showed me, in his little lined notebook, the results of his planning. We would be fastest to descend to Grenoble on foot, a journey that would take the greater part of an afternoon. Then to take a coach from Grenoble would take two days. Hardly a comfortable proposition—the trip would take a week in all. "How do you intend to pay for this?" I asked sternly.
"My pin money," Erik said, then shrunk from me after he saw my frown. It was for the fact that he had called his monthly allowance his "pin money"—only little girls had pin money—as his mother called it. I was worried—and not irrationally—that his mother considered him having the personality of a girl.
I was going to refuse—this was an unnecessary risk. "Please, Father," he said. "I know that other children go often to town with their fathers—"
I colored slightly. "Yes, Erik, but you are not like other children."
"I know." He was cold. "A visit to the glacière would suffice for them. But this is all that I want, and I don't think it's unreasonable to ask you for it." Marthe's masks always seemed to hide the fact that Erik's eyes were yellow; I don't know how. But now I could see the yellow very clearly.
God had punished me with Erik. Yet he was my son, and it was very hard to deny him something clearly so important to him. Though my heart rumbled with fear for the consequences, I consented. "Your mother may not come," I said.
"She mustn't," he agreed. "This opera might . . . upset her." In what way upset her I could not guess. "You had better buy her a present—otherwise she will be angry."
Erik's presumptuousness and shrewdness were quite honestly frightening at times!
At Erik's suggestion, I bought Marthe a fur-trimmed cloak and muff. Besides, Marthe was indifferent to Mozart. I feared a bit to leave her for so long—in eleven years we had never spent a day apart—but a part of me was exuberant. I had missed cities far more than I knew, and to be away from my cloistered family life was an-unlooked-for boon.
Things went quite according to Erik's well-conceived plan. It was almost too cold for the long walk to Grenoble, but contrary to my misgivings, Erik's thin and frail form withstood the cold well. Wrapped as we were in scarves and hats, Erik's mask made little impact as we arrived at the inn in La Tour-du-Pin where we stayed the night. Arriving so late and beginning again so early concealed Erik from prying eyes. Some time later we arrived in Lyon. By that time, everyone was wearing masks, and Erik, quite nervous throughout the trip, seemed to finally relax.
I had to remind myself that Erik had never seen a town, much less a city as large as Lyon. His face pressed to the glass of the window, he was silent in reflection. I could tell the impression made upon him of the paved streets, gas lamps, and fashionably-dressed people was great.
"I could live on these sights for years," he said in a rare moment of awe.
For a moment, I was happy. This grotesque child whom God had made my scourge—he was clearly enjoying himself. Would another moment in his life come so intensely and innocently pleasurable?
At eight o'clock the opera commenced. We were tucked away in our seats, out of sight. Erik's mask still provoked no comment, as some in the audience were wearing masks of their own. The Overture was struck up very loudly, a bit more loudly than was necessary, but Erik was riveted. He smiled at Leperello's opening "Notte e giorno faticar"; he watched in surprise as Giovanni murdered the Commodore. A strange fascination overtook him as Leperello offered Giovanni's catalogue of conquests; he seemed suitably moved by Zerlina's sweet "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto." For him the first act ended too soon, and the wait was interminable until the second act. Two hours of the intensity, with a less-than-stellar cast, was beginning to take its toll on me. But Erik sat in thoughtful quiet until the bows.
He spoke of the scene in the graveyard for months afterwards. This was what fascinated him the most—the thought of communion in a place both so dead and still alive seemed to speak especially to him—did he recognize in his own death's-head the menace of unquiet sleep?
We were both exhausted when the performance was over, and after a few hours' sleep in the inn before setting off for home, I remembered Erik's words as we departed the opera: "I shall never be the same." Did he really understand the gravity of what he said? His words were more prophetic than I could have ever feared.
He began to pore over scores and would not rest until he had learned to sight-read music. The cottage piano was moved from my wife's boudoir to the parlor. Marthe set to teaching him to play. Soon enough he had gone beyond what she could teach him. He grew frustrated, and she grew cross; it was the only time I had seen him angry with her. In good time, he did all the playing, and she would sit for hours and listen to him. He would play anything set before him—technically, he was accomplished. Still too young to be a real virtuoso, though, as he lacked the feeling. But he would play for hours. The only thing he would sing, however, was Don Giovanni.
His mother was suitably impressed by his boy soprano voice—even if it rendered every part in the opera laughable by its high pitch. I listened every day as Erik's voice grew stronger and prouder, and he moved from the simple recitatives to the most difficult passages. A boy with no formal musical training possessed a voice pure and powerful, caressing and cold. It was a voice full of persuasion and promises. The melody and trance-like quality of it could not be imagined. Soon he was singing Don Giovanni to his mother's Donna Anna or Donna Elvira, and to say it didn't disturb me would be a lie. When I was called into the family musicale to play the Commodore, I bluntly refused and nearly lost my temper.
It wasn't much longer until Erik was composing his own music. He began timidly, waiting until his mother was taking a nap and I was out, to play his pieces on the piano. They were childish things at first, then very rapidly I realized his talents were far beyond his years. But these were not études corralled by morals and good breeding. From some place deep within, Erik was taking the yearnings of his soul and expressing them. The music could be achingly beautiful—or violent, discordant. He was reluctant at first to play any of his music for his mother and me. Eventually her insistence won over, and he played short pieces emulating birds and streams—the simple things in our country existence. His four-part suite on Lyon was boisterous and bright and pleased his mother not at all.
He became devoted to his music, to the exclusion of all else. One afternoon in May, after he had turned fifteen, I was waiting for him to get ready, to accompany me in the hills as we had before. I found him at his desk in his chamber—the same small room that used to be the nursery—coaxing his hand to write out the notes he saw in his head.
"Are we not going for our walk?" I asked.
"Father," he said, "do you know what I am going to be when I grow up?"
Although I had not expected this topic to come up at that moment, it was not one I had never heard before. Before it had been a career rooted in the sciences—biology, botany. "What, Erik?"
"Don Giovanni," he said.
As a scientist, there was always the slightest chance he could remain in some cloister like our house had become and live and work successfully, live a close to normal life. But to train as a tenor was impossible—though the tragedy, of course, was that he had the voice that could do opera justice. "Erik, to devote yourself to opera is a large sacrifice—"
"I don't mean the character," he said irritatedly. "I will be Don Juan."
I froze a moment. I looked at his calm, earnest face, the yellow, peering eyes behind the mask. "What do you mean?"
He cleared his throat, his eyes filling with insolence. "A great lover, Father. I intend to have many women."
I felt suddenly very cold, and a tingling sensation stung my fingertips. Was God in His Judgment not yet satisfied with my penance? Was He now to show my own sin reflected in such an outrageous offspring, to see it twisted in the very result of its own bastardly beginnings? Was that stain of my desire to produce its own blasts of stain all over the life I had done my best to provide for him? I must have been white with rage, for I saw him shrink back from me. "You must not speak such nonsense, Erik!" I did not blush to tell him what I said next; I did not know when I said it if it was truth or perjury. "You must understand that you are not . . . capable of—of consorting with women!"
I had an uncontrollable urge to strike him and those so-superior yellow eyes now confused. "But you're mistaken, Father," he said. "I know that I am capable."
I felt myself almost unable to stand. Could he have possibly seduced someone in this very household—this deformed atrocity? "How—how--?"
"I haven't had a woman yet—" he assured me.
"Then how do you know?" He was uncomfortably silent. "Speak, then!"
"Certain . . . moments alone . . ."
I felt my rage returning in full force. This sin was both product and vice. "Onanism, Erik? The . . . perfidious sin of solitary vice?"
He no longer looked afraid of me, but he seemed surprised, unsure. "A sin? Why would that be? It gives nothing but pleasure to me."
"Erik," I said, as calmly as I could, "you cannot do this, do you understand? It's base, shameful, and vile. You are a brilliant boy—do not stain yourself this way."
He glowered. "Your religion means nothing to me. I'll conduct myself as I see fit."
I sighed. "It is not just religion that forbids this, Erik. There is medical proof that it causes tremors and eventually insanity."
He stared at me. "Four years, and I've noticed no effects."
All semblance of calm fled—to know that he had been promulgating this sin for four years brought me swiftly to action. "You will never have any woman, Erik. That you must accept."
Suddenly there was shame. He touched the mask his mother had embroidered beautifully for him. "It's my face, isn't it? There's something wrong with my face." I could say nothing; despite my anger, I did not wish to hurt him. I saw him gnash his teeth in rage. "All the more reason to continue, I think!" He threw his composition book closed. "Now, you may leave."
My shock outweighed my outrage. "You will cease this practice immediately."
He did not cease, immediately or otherwise. For months it was silent war between us. To spite me, he made a point of spending hours locked in his chamber alone. I threatened him, I beat him, I forced him to wear an English-made contraption to discourage him. His insolence only worsened; he had the impudence to, in my presence—it is too vulgar to describe. I was quite honestly afraid his mother might find out. But then, abruptly, his behavior stopped—or at least became imperceptible. It was this same time he stopped speaking to me, stopped playing music, to his mother's disappointment. Though it did not occur to me then, I feel certain that he had glimpsed his face in a mirror and realized what I had said was true.
Instead, he took out all the architectural books he had received as a birthday gift long before and read them devotedly. Then—through his mother—he requested more. I heard him say to her, "I am going to build something spectacular, Mother."
"A church?" she asked.
"No, some kind of monument."
"I doubt I'll live to see it, dear." (She was neither old then nor in ill health.)
"It shall be done soon," he said. "I am like Mozart—I am a young genius."
Perhaps he was.
He was sixteen, and very tall for his age, spindly, pale, his skin occasionally covered with blisters. He spent most of his hours in his room with his architecture books, poring over them with the single-minded enthusiasm he had shown a year before for composition. It was early spring, an uncertain time when the late frosts and snows were less than a week's memory. It was over a month before the doctor's next visit, so I could not imagine who could be at the door.
The cold, steel-cold, faces of Marthe's parents greeted me. "We've come to see our daughter," they said. They had not seen her in sixteen years, because of my careful prevention of their having any contact. They had received periodic letters from Marthe, though I closely censored any mention of Erik. I hid their letters from her, and eventually I think she believed they had forgotten about her, or maybe died.
Was I cruel? Undoubtedly. But all these years I had been trading one cruelness for another, infinitely worse as I saw it. Marthe was surprised and then confused to see her parents; as one not totally in control of her mind, she vacillated between outrageous joy and distrust. Her parents, though they had everything to blame me for, seemed to know that her grip on reality had been well-maintained while she had remained in isolation with me.
Her mother left the room stifling a sob, and as I followed her out, I did my best to explain the situation. Standing out in the hall was Erik, who never saw visitors—had rarely spoken to anyone outside the household. He didn't seem to understand, even as he had been listening, that these were his grandparents. "Who is that?" asked Marthe's mother.
I waited for Erik to respond. He was silent, curious, confused, despite his considerable intelligence. "One of the servants," I said perfunctorily, hurrying Marthe's mother back to her daughter's chamber.
Did they intend to stay? Did they intend to take Marthe away from my care? I never found out their real intentions, as Marthe—in her strange state of being between false memories and reality—let slip she had a son.
"Well, bring him in here!" demanded her father. "We have a right to see our own grandchild. It was criminal, criminal, to keep him from us."
I waited to see if anyone objected. I went into the hall where Erik was standing in the same spot, though his eyes were filled with an intense hatred. "Go on, Erik," I said, torn between dread and anger. "Your grandparents want to see you."
He made no sign that he had heard me name them his grandparents, moved silently into the room. "There you are, Erik, dear!" said his mother. "Skulking in corners? You should know—"
"Why is he wearing a mask?"
I looked at my wife. She had motioned for Erik to come sit beside her as he often did. "He has a skin disorder," she said. "He cannot go without his mask."
"What does he look like underneath?"
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with him. His skin is very sensitive to light."
Her father looked Erik over with a critical, hurting eye. "Why didn't you write to us about him?"
"I did! I wrote so much about him—his compositions, his—"
"Take off the mask. Let's see his face."
Erik's grandfather was staring at him incisively, while his grandmother saved pure loathing for me. "No, you don't understand, Papa," said Marthe. "His skin—"
"Take it off, I say. A moment or two—I just want to see the face of my grandson."
Erik had been sitting rigid, tense and unhappy. "No, I don't wish to take it off," he said.
Marthe's mother looked worried. "Perhaps we shouldn't . . ."
"Now, my boy, I see that your father has done great wrong by you," said Marthe's father. "You've been kept here—you haven't been allowed to meet your grandparents. You probably didn't even know we were still alive, did you?" Erik shook his head slowly. "No, I thought not. Well, now that we've seen you, we're going to take you away." He looked at his wife for confirmation. "You and your mother."
"Have you not even learned politeness, Erik, is it?" His grandfather could thunder better than I could. "I say, listen to me. And you can start by taking off that mask." Erik's grandfather reached across and ripped the beautifully-embroidered mask from my son's face.
His mother was the first to react. She leapt across the bed, screaming and sobbing. Did she understand that this was the same rotten face she had seen on a baby sixteen years before? She howled in fright and disgust, begging for "the thing" to go away. Erik threw his hands over his face; Marthe's mother turned white. Erik took a last look at his mother as she screamed at him and ran from the room. I went to comfort m y gibbering, terrified wife—but her mother reached her first and interposed. Her father did not look nearly as shocked as anyone else in the room; he made the sign of the Cross and said to me, "Well. God is just."
I left the room, my wife's desperate sobs resounding in my ears, my son's hollow eyes, grotesquely stretched skin, and hole for a nose blistering my sight. Erik was on the threshold to his chamber, sobbing quietly. His mother's love was all he had been certain of in his small world. I'm sure he heard me approach, but he continued to weep, neither hiding his face nor concealing his sobs. Something in me broke. I put my hand on the skeletal shoulder.
"Get away from me!" My hand was struck back viciously. Erik leapt to his feet, his grotesque visage rendered frightening by his look of rage. "You are the reason I'm like this!" His words had the force of a blow. "You made me this way—because of your sin, I am forever doomed to live a life of suffering! Do you think I haven't understood it, finally, why I live this way? You were Don Juan," he said, "and instead of Hell swallowing you up in flames, it spat out me, as I am! I was born a genius, but you made me a monster!"
My hands turned convulsively into fists. The ugly part of me that had leaked into him became something unspeakable. Frustration that my father-in-law had ruined everything I had worked so hard to achieve made me mad. It was Marthe's fault—Marthe who had been so stupid, so unthinking! "This particular sin doesn't just belong to me, Erik—you can thank your mother for your face!"
"That's a lie!" he snapped, tears streaming from his yellow eyes.
What made me say it? My own twisted soul's acknowledgment that in him, I had failed? "You're not even my son, did you know that? Your mother was dallying with many men when I knew her—any of them—"
Erik flew at me, pinning me down and bringing his hands to my throat. I thought to fend off a sixteen-year old's blows, but it soon became apparent that Erik was much stronger than I—he was preternaturally strong. My lungs were bursting, my throat burned, and the vicious yellow eyes I saw above me were slowly fading into night. How circular, I thought dreamily, that the evil I had spawned was going to destroy me . . .
I found myself on the ground, dizzy and nauseous. Something had stayed Erik; he had moved from my chest and was standing over me. He pushed me roughly out of the way, then slammed his door shut. I found I could not speak, but I scratched at the door. "Kill me!" Erik's voice was racked with sobs from the other side. "Do this kindness for me, please!"
He said no more. I got to my feet, stumbled, and fell into oblivion. I next found myself on my own bed. The doctor was hovering over me, looking at his pocket watch. My wife, on her own bed, was fast asleep. My wife's parents were watching gravely. "Don't get up," said the doctor. "Nothing's been damaged, but you should rest." He looked across the room darkly. "As should your wife."
"Erik?" I could barely speak, and it hurt to do so.
"I've examined him," said the doctor gravely. "I've given him some laudanum to calm him down. He's asleep."
I sighed. I remembered the thing my son had begged me to do and shivered. "May we speak?" asked Marthe's father. The doctor bowed and left. "We've decided. We are taking Marthe to Paris for the summer."
I could elicit no protest. I had done my best to shelter; let them now try to keep her in their own way. "As for your son—"
"You needn't worry yourself about him," I said. "I'll take care of him—"
"This has been a burden on you." It was Marthe's mother. "It was a sin, and you have paid for it. Now it is time for mercy."
"There was nothing merciful in the way you exposed him!"
They both looked away uncomfortably. "There can be no kindness in letting him live. Surely you see what a menace to society he will be if his own mother cannot look at him?"
I considered what Erik had said. Perhaps his wish was justified. "Perhaps you are right," I said slowly. "But what you are advocating is murder."
"It is the only way!"
I remembered Erik's plea. I thought of the horrible things I had said to him, quite untrue, how much he must despise me, how much my own heart had always rebelled at ever touching him. Erik's brilliant mind had no future while his face existed. I had tried once before, and failed . . .
It was not difficult to get the doctor to administer more laudanum. When Erik was safely beyond the reaches of reality, I placed him in the straw-lined back of a cart and drove as far as the mountain path would allow. I thought of everything and nothing as I half-carried, half-dragged Erik's lifeless body across a deserted hill. He was dressed in his best clothes, which, he had worn to Lyon, the most beautiful mask his mother had ever made. I was weeping, thinking that what I was doing was mercy. But I knew it was weak, and foolish, and evil.
I left my son to die, knowing that all my sins until now had been trifles in comparison to this most inhuman betrayal. I did not ever expect to see him again—my next world was Damnation, and I did not think Erik would share that fate.