Ophelia looked like a perfect porcelain doll, I must say, in her birthday dress. As her escort for the evening, I selected a burgundy waistcoat in order for us to coordinate flawlessly—I don't have much pink in my wardrobe.
We had two minor crises before we could go up and watch Mother perform. First was the matter of the mask. The baby diva was emphatically against it.
"Erik no," she insisted, trying to pry it off.
"I wear the mask in public, Ophelia. Upstairs is public, there will be lots of people there, and we'll be quiet, won't we?"
"Erik no," she frowned.
"Yes, or we don't go. You choose…though I know I would rather go and surprise Mother."
"And we keep the mask, and we're quiet. Ssshh."
The second crisis involved her dear friend, "Monk!", the ubiquitous ragdoll monkey. I made Monk during an attack of sentimentality when Ophelia was about five months old. I had failed, however, to make him an identical twin, so Christine and I lived in mortal fear of Monk coming to some grief. Given all the things that could go amiss the first time a nauseous Phantom occupied Box Five with a baby, I was firmly in favor of Monk remaining at home. However, I was passionately overruled, and ultimately we agreed that since I was allowed my mask, Ophelia would be allowed Monk. Monk, at least, could be relied upon to remain silent.
"Precisely. Listen, Mother will sing now, do not distract her."
Very well, Erik, I won't distract her, I'll merely use your lap as the launch point to clamber out of the box, crash to the floor below, and die of a skull fracture just weeks after my birthday. Won't Mother be surprised?
Once she was persuaded that Mother's surprise would be ruined if we didn't keep still, Ophelia settled much more quickly than my stomach. By intermission she was asleep.
Christine was duly surprised and moved when we appeared up in her dressing room.
"You are a wonderful Papa, and a marvelous husband. Thank you."
"My pleasure, as always."
"Look how sweetly she sleeps, Erik."
"Now, you mean; she was headed for the orchestra pit for the entire first act."
"You poor dear, I owe you a shoulder rub. Will you please help me? I can't remember a more aggravating costume to remove!"
"Of course, my diva. I live to help you out of your clothing."
"You are a multi-talented gentleman…"
"Mmm, now, if you would like to accompany me behind that screen over there, I'll show you a magic trick…"
"I'm sure you will!"
"I'm perfectly serious, my dear. I just happen to have this hank of rope…"
At the risk of sounding like an adoring father, I confess that Ophelia grew into a child of angelic beauty and unparalleled brilliance. Honestly. She was a thoughtful child, and remarkably articulate for her age. I attribute it to my refusal to engage in baby-talk with her. Oddly enough, she found me endlessly fascinating and shadowed me whenever permitted. She became self-ordained keeper of my pastels and pencils when I sketched, observing solemnly and handing over the next color when it was called for. She perched beside me while I composed, and it was not long before I had given her a rundown of the keyboard which she immediately committed to flawless memory.
Having a shadow was not all tea and cakes for me, however. While Mother was most often permitted to attend to her own affairs with little interference, my free time was severely curtailed. Should Ophelia and Monk declare a tea party, I was duly conscripted to make polite conversation with them until dismissed. Magic demonstrations, boat rides, or raids to the Opera were decreed regularly, and it was no use protesting other plans.
Little girls manipulate with chilling proficiency. Christine and Adele insisted that I was spoiling her atrociously, but that was absolutely not the case. I merely acquiesced to ensure some relative peace and quiet in the home.
I popped upstairs to slip a rose into Christine's dressing room one evening, but was too late. She was already there—alone with our patron, chatting and smiling. I did not follow their conversation; my pulse was pounding and I could not observe the scene for long. I saw enough, however; de Chagny remained flawlessly youthful, disgustingly handsome, and obviously—naturally—as captivated by my wife as ever.
I flew home, unable to name all the emotions clamoring inside my skull until it was fit to burst. I went to Ophelia's room to chase the tormentors away while I watched her sleep.
She could be his, I realized, she's flawless. No one would ever take her for the spawn of a gargoyle. She could live in a fine estate in the country, with sunshine, gardens, ponies, parties, a governess, titled aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters; the best of everything. She could grow up to make an excellent marriage and be Comtesse So-and-So herself.
He would take her if Christine was in the bargain, and quickly come to be charmed by her. Soon, he would look at her and think 'My daughter'; he would forget, for there is nothing of me to see there.
And Christine would be able to forget, too. She would be busy with her new life and duties, as many babies as she wanted, and a normal husband who would be every bit as good to her as I.
I love them both more than life, you understand. And they deserve…well, it is difficult to imagine much better than Raoul, Comte de Chagny.
"Erik, may I come in?"
"It's so dark in here…where are you?"
I raised a hand out of the coffin.
"Oh! You just lie in there?"
"I doze; I meditate. I do my best thinking in here."
"You are a very strange man, my angel."
Christine performed some wifely adjustments to my collar with a faint smile, as I imagine she would somedaydo just before they shut the lid for good. When I contemplate returning to my pre-Christine and -Ophelia existence, the priceless details of everyday life are the hardest for me to renounce.
"When will you tell me what's nibbling at you, Erik?"
Christine squeezed my hands, leaned over and kissed my forehead. "You used to be a much more elegant liar." She pinched what there was of my nose. "You're getting to be difficult old man. I shall have to beat you."
"Do you ever think of what you're missing, Christine? What your life could be like?"
"What am I missing, my love?"
"Sunshine. A normal life."
"Ophelia should have a sunny bedroom with a window, and a garden to chase butterflies in, and her parents should be moving in circles that will ensure a good marriage for her, and—"
"You lie in this box and get morbid, Erik, it's just as I suspected."
"No I don't, I was morbid before I lay down."
"I'm perfectly happy living here. I like the place, except for this dungeon of yours. If you want to consider living above ground again, for Erika's sake, we can discuss it. I wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable, though. She will thrive, and chase butterflies and make a fine marriage wherever she grows up."
"If you had a normal husband, you could have more babies—"
"A normal husband?" Christine squealed with consternation. "What brought this on?"
I shrugged. "I want you two to be happy. I want the best for you." I swallowed hard. "I can give you up for your happiness, I can. I can't let you stay down here and…wither on my account."
"I don't feel as though I'm withering, Erik. I feel safe, and happy, and loved. I have music every minute of my life with you. You are the most loving and generous soul I've ever known. Right from the start, you've been completely selfless in your love for me, always protecting, nurturing, comforting; and now that's true for Erika as well. You're brilliant, and gifted, and I learn something from you every day. If I have a regret, it's that everyone can't know this man I know." She brushed my hair back tenderly."And I certainly don't see a suffering child when I look at Erika. She adores you—I see so much of you in her--and she's opened your heart and made you blossom as I never could. Poor Erik, you tried to hard not to love her, I know. I couldn't have chosen a better father for my baby. Now, I hope you heard all that, because I mean every word."
I still was not ready to accept what Christine said.
"I'm not very handsome."
"No, you're not," she admitted. "You refuse to go to Mass, and you like to do weird things. You're a terrible mess."
"I'll take you as you are, Erik, and keep you. Try to believe me." She smiled, held my hand and let me cry.
"You're trying to placate me so I won't kill him."
"I would prefer that, yes," my Persian friend sighed. "But I don't understand why you're worried about him. If Christine's reassurances are insufficient, fine; but judge what you see."
"I told you what I saw: he was alone in the company of a married woman. My married woman. He should be hanged or run through, or both. Both, definitely."
"He paid his respects to the diva, Erik, nothing more. Surely as patron of the opera, that would be an expected courtesy."
"Ha. You didn't see those twinkling eyes, that dashing smile, that trim, elegant physique; I'd sleep with him myself."
"We can all be thankful that your wife has more discriminating tastes than you."
"She was a different person when she made that choice. She was more…naïve. Now, she's looking at him with a more…experienced eye, you know, wondering…"
"It amazes me to think of what you might have accomplished in life if you didn't spend so much time worrying yourself into a frenzy. My friend, listen, if I intended to steal your wife away, I would not do it in the very place where you would be most certain to discover me."
"Yes, but you, unlike our Prince Charming, are capable of abstract thought."
Ophelia clambered into my lap and burrowed her bath-fresh self inside my dressing gown. Little girls smell heavenly.
"Does Monk care for a bedtime story tonight?"
"No. Birthday soon."
"It is indeed, and how old shall you be?" Two fat fingers. "You'll be a young lady, no baby anymore."
"How many is Erik?"
"Mm, considerably more than two; more fingers than we have between us. What would Erik's Monkey like for her birthday, does she know?"
I caught up to my treacherous bride as she sat brushing her hair.
"Here, let me," I offered, taking the brush.
"Mm, that feels wonderful," she sighed, closing her eyes.
"Christine, what is this nonsense you put Ophelia up to about a baby?" I asked mildly.
"She asked you about a baby?" she sounded genuinely shocked.
"You know she did," I accused with a smile.
"I didn't put her up to it, darling, honestly, it was all her own idea. I did everything I could to dissuade her when she mentioned it to me. I thought it had all been resolved. I told her it wasn't up to me, or even just me and you; that it was up to God as well. I never dreamed she'd take it up with you."
"Hm, the translation was considerably different. She said you said to ask me, because 'Erik and god can get the baby for Mama'."
"Oh yes. She reminded me that I'd have to attend Mass in order to confer with the Almighty, but I told her that we have a special arrangement whereby we chat out-of-hours, in my room. So she dismissed me: 'Go ask now'."
"Erik, stop, I can't laugh anymore."
I scooped Christine up and deposited her on the bed.
"Little girl; light as a feather."
She caught a handful of my shirt.
"Come here, I want to show you something," she whispered.
"Hm…look, darling, I believe you may find this of interest as well."
Thus we arrive at the present, or nearly so. Last year was quite eventful.
Christine persuaded me that I should be civilized for Ophelia's sake. We agreed to divide our time between the Opera and a house outside the city. I designed it with plenty of secret passages, trap doors, and caverns underground so I can feel secure; I think it will be alright. I did the underground work myself, before Christine beat my vanity and paranoia into submission and insisted I hire the construction out. She's right, of course; this should see the place completed in my lifetime. I will have to dispose of the unfortunate laborers when the work is done; I cannot leave them alive with intimate knowledge of my home.
On the subject of beatings, I received the most severe one of my adult life last year. I never would have imagined a girl of Christine's size capable of it, but it was quite remarkable. It began harmlessly enough when the demon and I happened to come up with an interesting diversion one morning. We snuggled up to present the idea to our sleeping darling, blissfully unaware that in a matter of seconds our life would be flashing before our eyes. Suffice it to say that she did not share our enthusiasm. When she recovered the power of speech, Christine warned us that if we ever tried to wake her in a similar fashion again, the demon would come to unimaginable grief, and I would be damned unhappy, too.
After that debacle, I groveled shamelessly: flowers, jewelry, chocolates, breakfast in bed, child care, domestic chores, meal preparation, absolutely impeccable behavior in every way. Still it took me two weeks to learn whether I was to remain a married man.
I managed to hold Christine's biology at bay until last year as well. I was the same nauseous, headache-ridden wreck that I had been the first time she chose to reproduce. Christine didn't understand this at all. Her feeling was that since everything had gone perfectly with Ophelia, I should be able to relax and enjoy myself this time. She stubbornly refused to see that by my reckoning, we were brazenly courting divine retribution by insisting upon such a miracle yet again. Ultimately, I devised a plan which will remain in place until Christine's child bearing proclivities cease or I die, whichever comes first. If the child appears normal, it will live. If it comes out a monster, I'll smother it and tell her it stopped breathing as it slept—it's utterly credible that there could be internal mistakes as well as the obvious ones. Please, don't chastise me with the tragically heart-warming tale of how my mother allowed me to live. It's not murder to kill an infant such as I was. I've done murder; I know.
Despite my visions of doom, Christine came through it easily and we have another perfect little girl: Sylvie, about two months old now. She looks like she'll be another blue-eyed, golden angel. In spite of what Christine believed, I wanted another girl. Boys are of no use to anyone; look at me.
I tried to prepare Ophelia as much as possible for what a disappointment 'her' new baby would be, but her excitement continued unabated until that first icy dip in reality's pool when Mother was unavailable. My irrational panic of being abandoned is lessened slightly by ministering to Ophelia's identical panic. We help each other through, and together, we have begun work on a children's opera. We have a few melodies and the barest framework of a plot. It will have plenty of magic, dragons, an incredibly brave little princess who commands a troop of heroic monkeys, and an evil vicomte.
Shortly, I shall be staring sixty years in the face. My back aches in the morning; too many years in the damp like a rat, Christine says. I have not yet been able to elicit a promise from her that when I'm crippled and useless, she'll take me down to my coffin and leave me there, but I intend to persist. I hope I last to seventy; I would like to see the girls grow up a bit. But whatever happens, it's alright. If I go this minute, I've had more than I have ever hoped for; certainly more than I have ever deserved.
A/N: Thank you all for welcoming me to the world; I hope you enjoyed this first offering. I'll begin posting the next soon.