AN: Modern medicine makes me glad I am not one of the Brontes.
I must warn her. There was a time when I did not wake up in a cold, dark room. When the walls did not seep with the dampening moors. When the sun did not rise over a bleak, wasted land. When my society was not limited to a drunken old woman and a myriad of sibilant whispers at locked doors. When I did not have to remind myself that there was a time before him. She must be told.
I see them sometimes walking through my world, and in my thoughts. He brings her to my view, to remind me of his awful purpose. I raise my fists to pound them on the slippery walls, but they only find air, and I am in bed, and it is the rough sheets damp with my own sweat. My throat is swollen, rasping. The woman Poole tells me I have been laughing again. She cannot understand that I am screaming, and that the laughter she hears is me, choking on my tears.
I would cry for home, if there was anything left for me. I cannot return. He has seen to that. What family would take their dirtied, mad daughter back into their cherished bosom? What life would be left for my debauched lucidity? He has taken it all, poisoned it, and given it back to me in this frozen world that he calls heaven. The cold burns like a wound. If I had a heart left I would stab him with it.
It was not always like this. When I was a girl I lived in a house by the sea in a place where the air dripped with the scent of jasmine, and I did not then know what it was like to be buried alive under the mossy odor of decay. The bougainvillea grew bright against the stuccoed walls, and when I was still small enough, I would climb down the network of slender branches and run, unnoticed, into the sea. My mother called me her little mermaid. I think she knew about my moonlit trysts with the little bay at the edge of the plantation. Sometimes, in the days after the wasting death of her youngest son, my little brother, I thought I saw her there in the night with me.
One of my most striking memories of my mother was years later on the day of the races on the beach outside the township. Papa had entered one of his imported thoroughbreds for the purse, but when the riders were trumpeted to the start, my mother was nowhere to be found among the spectators. She had murmured something earlier to him about a thing she had forgotten, no trouble really, that she would be right back, and then she was gone. When the horses took off, no one thought to look for her. The heaving bodies were captivating, the riders' silks bright slashes against the surging flanks of the horses. I could feel a tingling ache in my chest. I wanted to be a part of that desperate recklessness.
The riders flung their weight over the horses' necks, urging them down the sandy beach, round the pikes and back again. Amidst the jostling and pounding mass one horse and rider began to emerge - Papa's horse. He seemed to float above the ground, the rider on his back silent poetry on the wind. The two swept through the finish a handful of lengths ahead of the others and circled back round and into the waves. I could see the rider laughing as the foam splashed up over the horse's hocks and withers, and I knew before the others that the rider was my mother.
There was a collective gasp as she removed her rider's cap and the long shiny knot of her hair came down and spilled over the horse's back. I ran up and grabbed her stirrup, the waves catching me at the waist. Papa waded in after me and grabbed me at my soggy middle.
"Was the subterfuge really necessary, my dear?" he asked, laughing up at her, while taking the froth covered reins of the restive horse. "I knew something would be afoot the minute that stallion came off the boat."
It was true. When Papa had first brought this horse back to the plantation, my mother had fallen into raptures over the spirited new resident of her husband's well populated stables. There was something about this new animal that drew her - a powerful, brooding animated beast that seemed to demand something of her very essence the moment she laid her eyes upon it. She had become almost obsessed with that stallion, as if the tremendous spirit she held between the reins transmuted itself into some terrible joy within her own psyche. Every morning, without fail, she rode out onto the beach and into the waves wearing an old pair of Papa's breeches, her long hair unbound streaming over the horse's crupper.
Papa thought nothing of her early morning rides - or the fact that she rode astride, or that she was teaching me to do the same. In fact, Papa seemed only to find my mother's eccentricities amusing. He loved her in all her outrageousness. Nothing seemed too outlandish to Papa as long as he could look at her laughing face with all her hair flowing free about her shoulders. The whispers of the crowd after the race meant nothing to him, and I was too innocent to understand them. I only remembered Papa's face, shining as brightly as my own, looking up at his beautiful and eccentric wife.
My older brother Richard remained aloof from all this. Of all our family he seemed most conscious of our social appearances, and was fastidious of his own deportment. He hounded me mercilessly about the behavior of "ladies" and of the "accomplishments" that were necessary in order to become one. We fought on more than one occasion, and once I remember Papa striking him after he told him our mother was acting teaching me to act like a Jezebel. When Richard upbraided me about my own reluctance to embrace an sort of ladylike behavior, I would think of my mother and toss my hair at him. At night when I was supposed to be sewing on my wretched tapestries or drawing, I would instead climb out my window and down the bougainvillea to the stables and take my own cobb pony down to the beach to swim in the slack tide.
I was there when the accident happened. It was like any other day at first, clear and warm, but not overly hot. The morning sky was blush and rose outside my window. I could hear the dull roar of the waves, and, above them, my mother's laughing voice raised in greeting to the dawn. She was out early, riding in the surf. I could see her in my mind, her long hair plastered to her back, Papa's breaches clinging wetly to her thighs as they wrapped tightly around the steaming flanks of her plunging horse. Unencumbered by skirts, she rode bareback, skimming through the rolling waves at a gallop, her hair a black comet behind her as she and her horse streaked down the pale sand.
Unable to wait for her return, I climbed out my window, down the vine-ladder, and tripped down the shaded path to the beach. I had just reached the end of the walk when my mother saw me. She cried out to me and waved, and turned her horse in a magnificent pirouette before sending it towards me at a gallop, with the water exploding from the flashing hooves like breaking glass. For a moment, they were one magnificent creature, all recklessness and speed, flying at the face of the sea, and I thought I would never breathe again. And so I did not have the air to scream when the stallion stumbled (he had always been so surefooted), went down on its knees with its hindquarters arcing over them both in a terrible parabola, and buried my mother beneath its body in the rolling surf.
They later said that it was the sand that saved her, but I do not know what it saved her from. I remember rushing into the waves, dodging the disgraced horse as it floundered to its feet, and seeing the limp body of my mother, shrouded in her own hair, swaying gently in the current like a piece of seaweed. I pulled her out of the water, blood streaming from her ears and nose, her eyes open, and unseeing. It was then, looking into their black and bloodshot depths that I began to scream.
I do not remember much after that. My mind was full of the darkness of my mother's eyes as they slowly grew red with blood. I am told that we were dragged from the shore, Papa staggering with silent grief as they laid my mother's seemingly lifeless body in state upon her bed. I was denied that dignity, and was instead dumped rather unceremoniously on my own narrow mattress after being given a liberal dose of laudanum to silence my screams.
She did not die. The fall, which should have killed her, seemed to have only bruised her head instead of crushing it. The doctors seemed to think there was a possibility that she would make some sort of recovery once the initial crisis was past. My mother clung silently to life, her bright eyes clouded, her shining hair cut short after the trepanation. Richard, in a rare moment of charity, stopped Papa from shooting the horse (even though I knew he hated it) by telling him that she might one day be well enough to ask for it.
Weeks gave into months as we waited for some sign of recovery. My mother's once vigorous frame became soft and pale from inactivity. She could eat the food that was fed to her, and her eyes followed us about the room, but she never moved, and she never spoke. Papa moved about the house like a ghost, the laughter siphoned out of him now that the light of my mother's vitality had been extinguished. Richard began to take over the management of the estate as Papa no longer cared whether the crops were harvested or not. We had to remind him to eat.
In the early days I cared for my mother. I spooned her gruel, washed her motionless body, and combed her ravaged hair around her face. When I realized that Papa no longer noticed my presence, I also began to ride the horse that destroyed her. At first I told myself that I was exercising him for the day when my mother would be well enough to take the reins again, but as the months she lay stricken turned into years, I found that I could not bear to stop for my own sake. What had drawn my mother was now stirring in my own blood.
The flashing eye of her great stallion seemed to watch me from within my own mind, dark and mysterious, and oddly compelling. There was certain intoxication I felt the moment I took the reins and poured through them my will and determination. I marveled at the controlled fury, so different from the hesitant pony I was accustomed to, and was exultant of my own power. I barely noticed when they took my mother away.
Richard had my mother removed to a sort of sanatorium run by the neighboring church. He told us that she had a better chance of recovery there under the careful watch of their staff, who might see some sign that we would miss. What he did not say, but was also clear, was that he was too busy to oversee her care himself, and that Papa and I were incapable of doing so on our own. I remember him telling me she was gone. I had just come in from the beach and was covered with sand and reeking strongly of horse. Richard looked me over for a long minute before speaking. I could see him taking in my bedraggled hair, my sunburned face, and sopping shirt before ending with a grimace at the sight of my legs encased in his over-worn breeches.
"I have sent Mother away," he said. I nodded, not really listening. My mother had already been away for some time. There had only been an husk of her former self left lying in her bed.
"It is for the best," he continued. "Father cannot recover until she is no longer a constant reminder of his foolish leniency." Richard had always held Papa responsible for my mother's accident. He felt that it was Papa's moral duty to protect my mother from her own recklessness, and that had he taken steps to keep her a proper and demure wife, she would never have fallen in the surf. He looked me over again, thoughtfully this time.
"And you have neglected your studies for far too long," Richard said, his face twisting into what seemed to be a sympathetic frown. "It is unfair that you should bear the burden of Mother's care during such a delicate time in your own life."
"Delicate?" It seemed my head was full of wool - what was he talking about? Richard looked at me appraisingly.
"Yes, delicate," he replied. "I am told that the time before marriage is especially trying for elegant young ladies such as yourself." It seemed like his mouth had too many teeth as his lips formed the word "elegant."
"Marriage?" I was confused. "I am not getting married. I do not want to. And besides, my mother needs . . ."
My voice died as I realized that my mother was gone, and with Papa being oblivious with grief and despair, that Richard now had control over the Mason plantation. I began to see very clearly just what he meant by when he said that my position was "delicate." He saw the realization in my face, and grasped my arm as I tried to step back.
"I have had enough of your ridiculous behavior," he hissed, jerking me close to him. "Father has let you run wild and made me a laughingstock. Do you know what it is like to do business with men who secretly think that you and your mother have mated with that damn horse after all that running about showing your bare legs? Or to hear that you do not wear skirts because every man in the township has already been underneath them? I am sick with it, I tell you, and I have had enough!"
Something in his voice caught me, and stopped the words of denial that crowded in my throat. With a sickening heart I realized that the poisonous accusations he flung at me were true, and that while he disapproved of me and my mother's hedonism, he had done so not only because of his own fastidious decorum, but also because he understood how we appeared to the rest of our society.
"I am sorry, Richard," I managed. "What would you have me do?"
"I have arranged for a man to come out and meet you," he said. "He is the son of one of Father's friends in England who knows nothing about any of this mess. His name is Rochester, and if you prove yourself to be of good stock and deportment, he will marry you, and perhaps put all of this damned bar talk about you to rest."
He looked at me for a moment, and then added, "I will not tolerate any failure on your part. If I see you try to throw this thing with any sort of foolish rebellion, I will shoot that blasted animal you love so much and have you shut up in a nunnery." Only then did he release the viselike grip in which he had held my arm, and turned away from me as though I were an object of contagion. "He will be coming on the next boat," he flung at me over his retreating shoulder, "That should give you adequate time to learn how to become a lady."
And so I married the man my brother hoped would save my reputation as well as his own. I showed off my ladylike skills like a prized horse going to auction, and Edward Fairfax Rochester took one look at my physical pedigree (and my dowry of thirty thousand pounds) and placed his bid before God and man.
At first it seemed to be a good match. Rochester, as I called him, was a tolerable judge of real horseflesh, and shared my delight in Richard's additional wedding gift of two thoroughbred stallions (one having been recently pardoned from execution). We rode them up and down the beaches together in the early mornings, before the sun grew too hot on the white sand. The rest of the day he would spend with Richard out on the plantation or in the town, before returning to dine with me in the evenings, where I performed my ladylike charade under Richard's still watchful eye.
Richard seemed enamored with the man who had come to rescue my purity, and Rochester too, seemed to be content with his bargain. I alone felt lost. Beneath it all I knew that I had sold myself into the embraces of a strange man to save the life of a horse. In the daylight it was bearable, and as I would hook my knee around the pommel of my side saddle and arrange my new voluminous skirts over my modesty, I could forget that the illusion of chastity that Richard had bargained my marriage would preserve had been stripped from me bodily in my bridal bed.
While the physical nature of marriage was not a complete mystery to me, the emotional needs of my husband were. Somewhere between the setting of the sun and the closing of our bedroom door Rochester would change from the quietly reserved man I had met into a grasping thing that would force my spirit as well as my body. He would wind his hands into my hair and drag me down with him in a sort of desperation, whispering that he was empty inside, and that he needed my soul to fill the void. Goaded by Richard's words, I at first tried to please him, to throw myself into his own emptiness, and quiet him like I would a nervous horse. It was not enough. Rochester did not want my love, only the possession of my body and the surrender of my spirit. He consumed me like a piece of kindling, splintering my soul as his hands burned my flesh.
I began to hate him, his weakness, his pathetic emptiness. I could see then that in marrying me, Rochester had hoped to secure my complete spiritual capitulation to him. The lust he had for my body was only eclipsed by his need to possess my mind in some form of pitiful reassurance for his own spiritual desolation. I could see it also in the way he spoke to Richard, captivating my brother and compelling an odd sort of devotion from him, and in his heavy handedness in holding his horse's reins in a grip of fearful pain as we rode out in the mornings in our farcical honeymoon. I could not bring myself to speak of our nights together in the light of day. Clothed in modesty, I found myself feeling more naked than I ever had in Richard's old breeches. It was as though my sober dress had made me as helpless as the unclothed women in the seraglios I had seen painted in Papa's books, and more painfully and weakly feminine than I had ever been before.
I could not tell Richard, or Papa, of the dark secret that lay with me in the night, that the embraces of this man had dirtied me far more than riding in a man's breeches ever could. I resolved to run away. I would go to be with my mother, and hide myself behind the sanctuary of religion, as the ladies did in the old legends. I knew I could never regain the purity that had been ravaged from me, but that I could hide my spirit behind the walls of the house of God.
It seemed easy enough. One night, after Rochester lay spent and sleeping beside me, I carefully unwound the rope of my hair he had knotted in his fist, and crept out the window and down the ladder of my innocent youth. I slipped silently down the walk to the stables, guided only by the light of the watchful moon. No one challenged me as I entered the darkened building, or led my mother's horse from his stall. All was quiet, and the dusty path swallowed the stallion's hoof beats as we made our way down to the beach.
I had decided to ride through the low tide around the headland so that the incoming waves would cover my trail. I knew that Richard would guess where I had gone, but I thought the deception would give me ample time to hide myself behind the sanctuary walls. As we entered the surf and the waves brushed against my dangling feet I felt all the defilement of my marriage begin to wash away, and the burning grip of Rochester's hands on my flesh and in my spirit began to slacken with the tide. With a surge of joy, I urged my mother's horse into a gallop, that its surging body and flashing legs would sweep the last bits of dirtiness from my heart.
Richard shot the stallion out from under me. We tumbled headlong into the waves, and this time, it was a horse, instead of a human, that lay streaming its vitality into the rolling surf. I flew at Richard, to kill him with my bare hands if I could (in his eyes I could see he knew the reason of my awful purpose), but suddenly Rochester was between us, and the flash of darkness in the moonlight was the butt of Richard's pistol as Rochester swung it solidly against my temple. The night exploded into a thousand stars, and I felt my nerveless body fall into the liquid blackness of oblivion.
And so I must warn her. This tiny fragile thing I see Rochester twisting about his will like a bit of gossamer thread. That she is only another spiritual conquest to fill Rochester's awful harem of the mind. He has grown tired of me, locked up in my frigid prison, and takes no more pleasure in riding his great stallion (so like my mother's) before my window in his cruel attempts to shiver the last remnants of my soul. Instead I now see the flash of his face turned towards me in defiance as he pulls his pliant companion into his unholy embrace.
I see them return one day after going out in the carriage together. It is laden with boxes, and as they disembark, Rochester pulls yards of a filmy white gauze from the topmost package, and winds it over her face and shoulders. It is then that I realize he means to marry her, that little thing whose pathetic frame cannot withstand the assault of his poisoned mind. She will be wholly consumed.
I must tell her. I see my chance when Rochester leaves one day and does not return in the night. When the house is quiet, and the woman Poole as taken her porter with the laudanum that was meant for me (I pretend to swallow, and spit it in her mug unawares), I slip her keys into the locks and feel my way down the stairs.
It is easy enough to find the little thing's room, just down the hall from his, where he had brought me once, unwilling, and I later set fire to the bed as he slept in it. Her door is chastely locked, but my key ravishes it open, and I slip inside. I see her lying asleep, small, like a child, with all the raiment of her bridal day arranged before her narrow bed like guardians of innocence, not the sinister instruments of rape that the will become. I see her veil, the barrier of the mind that Rochester means to split asunder, and take it into my own hands. In its filminess I again feel the weight of my own marriage to Rochester, feel that it is a harness that he means to bind me to him body and soul, and twist it again around the mind of this tiny, innocent girl. I put it on, to see if its whiteness can bleed her purity back into me, but I see in the mirror, in my eyes, swollen from captive tears, that what Rochester has taken from me can never be replaced, that it would have been far better for me if my body had joined that of my mother's horse in the rolling waves of the surf.
I hear her wake, behind me, but I cannot speak, as all the words of warning come crowded into my throat and choke me. So instead I tear the veil before her face in a silent entreaty I feel that she must understand. Her large eyes seem to take in every aspect of the shame of my body in its awful defilement, and I cast one sorrowful, terrified look into her startled face, before I run, burning like a brand, into the freezing darkness.