Continuing our celebration of the winter holiday season, we have one more present for you: another short story. While it is the holiday season, we thought we’d stir things up a bit and forgo the normal holiday cheer. Instead, Hannah Strom-Martin brings you a dark and delicate gothic tale of love, romance, and passion that refuses to die.
Happy holidays from Hannah, Erin, and Underwords.
Mask, Glass and Bones
By Hannah Strom-Martin
Waiting for the servants to bring the dress, Mabel stands shivering behind the carved wooden screen, her handkerchief clutched to her mouth. She suppresses a cough, not wanting to smear the color Lovelock’s lady friend has so carefully applied to her lips. Cold tonight. Each night she has spent in Abendlied has felt colder than the last. She dreads the ride she must take to get to the party. A freezing rain beats on the roof of Martin Lovelock’s house and runs down the soaring windows of the boudoir. Outside the streetlights shine through both glass and rain, painting wall paper, furniture and carpet a watery blue.
The door to the boudoir opens and a breath of warmth rushes in followed by laughing servants and Lovelock.
“Are we ready, then?” he asks. She can hear the rustling of his feathers—he is going as a raven, tonight—and the swish of satin. She can recognize the sound of certain fabrics now: the cool whisper of silk, the crinkle of taffeta. Velvet makes no sound but women sigh when they touch it, running their hand down the arm of a man’s coat.
The dress is a great silvery thing, the skirts ballooning out as wide as her arms can stretch, side-to-side. Women in starched linen caps help her into it, then cinch the lacings tight in the back. Mabel’s bosom pushes upwards, framed in silver lace and white satin roses. She puts her hands over it, hoping she isn’t blushing too hard as the women herd her out from behind the screen to be admired by Lovelock.
“Ah, cousin!” he says, approvingly, gesturing for her to put her arms down. She is not quite used to his direct stare. The only men at Saen Mira’s were the garden boys and they were trained to keep their eyes amongst the cabbages. Sometimes she thinks that Lovelock—befeathered, bejeweled, loving velvet and silver-tipped canes—is some sort of apparition, born from the spiked scrawl of the letters they have exchanged. There is something pointed about him, sharp and erratic, the dark hair he allows to sweep out in all directions suggestive of his lower case “i’s.”
“An angel!” he says now. “A lovely, living doll.” The women titter at his back.
Mabel laughs too and shifts uncomfortably. If every man in Abendlied is like this, she may have to sneak back to Saen Mira’s.
They set out to the party wrapped in sable and ermine. Lovelock brings Lady Varutchka, the bosomy, golden woman who has painted Mabel’s face. Mabel thinks Varutchka meant to dress as a canary but she clucks like a chicken, hardly ceasing her talk of last year’s Winter Ball. Apparently she will sing tonight.
Domed music halls pass beyond the foggy windows of the coach, the rain continuing down upon the city’s famous walled gardens and bridges of arching stone. Abendlied is a city of silent canals and bronze steeples, each with their own ghost stories, their own pieces of music. The host of tonight’s party, the lord Joseth Byrne, is a composer himself and once wrote an opera set in the Westmark Cemetery, that place of yawning mausoleums on the other side of the river. His wife, Glorianna, sang the soprano role a month before she died.
“He’s cursed, of course,” Lady Varutchka says as if she has plucked Mabel’s thought out of the air. Joseth Byrne is a favorite topic of hers—and Lovelock, of course. They mention his name even more frequently than their own.
“Poor man,” Varutchka says now. “Glorianna died three years ago last week, you know.”
Mabel nods politely. She is beginning to know Joseth Byrne’s history better than her own.
“And he just won’t let anyone in,” Varutchka says, fixing Mabel with her painted eyes. “So many lovely young women come out each season and still he sits there in that house, plunking at that piano as if one more nocturne will bring her back.”
“These things take time, my dear,” Lovelock says. “Perhaps the right woman hasn’t come along yet.” The two of them smile at each other, then at Mabel.
Joseth Byrne’s house is on the edge of the city where the silver streetlamps give way to gold. Its great gabled roof towers over the surrounding parkland, dwarfing the trees, catching the glare of the lightning which begins to flicker disconcertingly along the horizon. Such a house! The chapel at Saen Mira’s is a tiny thing in comparison, its bell tower a mushroom beside an oak.
The coach rattles over a cobbled drive and joins a queue of other carriages. A queen of hearts emerges from one, her scarlet train barely escaping a puddle as she steps down. Despite the rain, resin torches have been lit before the manse’s double doors. The flames catch the sequins and diamonds of the enormous crowd, a veritable mob of faeries and devils, satyrs and swans. Mabel breathes deeply to slow her pounding heart. She remembers balls, but only from her childhood, stealing under the desert table and tossing candied almonds beneath the feet of passing nobility.
Suddenly she turns to Lovelock: “Lovey, I don’t have a mask!”
“You don’t need one, dear girl. Not with your pretty face.”
“But what am I supposed to be?”
“You’re a maiden, luv.”
“A maiden?” She looks down at her dress, suddenly afraid. She will be the only one without wings, without feathers. All the characters parading from their coaches into the manse have hidden themselves behind masks. She has no such protection.
It is too late, however. The coach door opens. She coughs discreetly into a silken handkerchief and follows Lovelock’s midnight wings.
Hot inside. A fever of movement. The guests, laden with epaulettes, bell shaped with satin skirts, whirl on the dance floor, a small orchestra providing the searing music of the season.
Over the bee-like drone of a hundred conversations, Lovelock introduces her to the revelers.
“My cousin Mabel, from the country. She has been seven years at Saen Mira’s.”
“This must be very exciting for you, my dear!”
“Don’t they study medicine at Saen Mira’s? Very scientific!”
It grows steadily hotter. There are two enormous fireplaces at either end of the room, each raging, each guarded by stone lions. When Lovelock becomes distracted by introductions, Mabel slips away to the refreshment table, her head spinning with the movement of dancers. With her hands braced between a platter of cheeses and a plate of cookies, steadiness ventures back. Taking a breath, she looks up and discovers the painting.
It would have been something to know Glorianna Byrne (for surely this is she) when she was alive. The sweet face draws you to it, the golden hair framed by darkness. To hear Lovelock tell it, Gloria died at nineteen, the rasping sickness tearing her lungs as she held her Joseth’s hand and wept. Now her golden shadow looms above the dancers, the most beautiful death-mask Mabel has ever seen.
“The Lord Joseth Byrne,” a voice announces.
Lovelock appears at Mabel’s arm, sporting a glass of cordial and a mermaid. “Come with me,” he says.
The room hushes, a sea of gloved hands taking up applause that grows like the sound of rain. At the top of a marble staircase, a tall figure appears, all in black, holding a white face before him on an ivory stem.
Lovelock moves her quickly through the crowd, straight for the staircase. There is something both fascinating and frightening about the figure of Joseth Byrne, something about his clothing, his tall movement, as if he were the darkness in a painting come to life.
At the bottom of the stairs people jostle to greet him, but Sir Joseth keeps his mask raised.
“Joseth!” Lovelock says. He plunges in boldly, drawing Mabel with him. The object of his greeting raises a porcelain face glittering with a subtle dusting of silver.
“Martin. No longer content to step out with a single girl, I see.” The voice is stately, deep. And motionless somehow, like the features of his mask.
Lovelock smiles. “I’ve brought you a present, my lord. This is Mabel. The cousin I told you about.”
“How do you do, my lord?” Mabel asks. She senses something is about to happen and cannot decide if she dreads or desires it.
“How do you do?” Joseth Byrne says.
“Joseth,” Lovelock admonishes. “How can you greet her with that thing on your face?”
A pale hand rises, almost touches the mask. A pause.
He doesn’t want to take it off, Mabel thinks. But then he says: “Of course. Forgive me, Miss Lovelock.”
Slowly, he takes one white face away from the other.
Mabel has seldom been afraid. When screams echo through Saen Mira’s infirmary, she knows only the voices of those she had tended throughout the day. The gibberers do not frighten her, nor the prostitutes with their rotting charms. Yet as Joseth Byrne reveals himself, fear comes over her like a wave. His is the most beautiful, most tragic face she has ever seen: gaunt and proud, its mouth as hard and sad as mourning. It hurts to return his stone-blue gaze.
“My lord,” she says. “I am honored to meet you.”
“And I you.”
“And you won’t find a prettier dance-partner in all the city,” Lovelock says. “Snag him now, Mabel luv, before Varutchka has a go.”
Mabel stands before Joseth Byrne and cannot decide if she is hot or cold. To her amazement he offers her his arm.
“That’s the spirit!” Lovelock says. He squeezes his mermaid until she squeaks. A burst of applause rolls through the gathering of onlookers.
“My lord,” Mabel says, low so no one else can hear. “Are you sure?” Fear again. He will not stop looking at her. He seems determined about something, as if by looking at her he will receive the answer to a long asked question.
“Quite sure,” he says. And as music begins, he leads her to the dance floor.
He shows her the book almost sheepishly (yet almost joyfully) in the evening after one of their walks. The doors to the solarium are open, a flowering breeze blowing through as the rain begins to fall.
“Mabel,” he says when she brings in the tea. “I must show you something.” He seems agitated, but not unpleasantly so. He grows this way sometimes, picking her a rose from her favorite bush in the park as if vaguely amazed at the impulse, emptying his pockets so they may toss coins into a well. He laughs when he does these things as though he cannot believe laughter belongs to him.
He waits for her to put the tea on the low glass table.
“What is it, my lord?”
He stands and walks towards the dusty piano in the corner of the room. Mabel follows. He opens the bench and takes out a book with a sandalwood cover.
“Beautiful,” Mabel says. They sit together, close on the settee, the scent of tea curling around them, the smell of rain and fresh grass flowing in through the open doors.
“It’s from the Raga,” he says, turning the pages. Strange symbols are written on every page, the language in some flowing cipher she has never seen. “It comes from a great desert where they say magic still exists.”
“Magic?” Mabel whispers. A little shiver runs through her, the warm spring air grown chill. “You know of such things?”
“They taught you history in Saen Mira’s? The War of Songs?”
She nods. In the War of Songs Abendlied was crushed with words and singers lived enslaved. But those days are over.
“Joseth,” she says gently, “why do you have a magic book?”
“I got it at the market down by the river,” he says. “I thought I would bring Glorianna back to me.”
Mabel cannot suppress a gasp.
“It’s alright,” Joseth says. He puts the book on the table by the plate of sandwiches and takes her hands, clasping them together, trapping the cold of them between his warm palms. “Nothing happened, my dear,” he assures her. “I thought I saw something, at first: shadows in mirrors, something following me. But every time I turned to look it was gone. I kept the thing. I thought I’d figure out its proper use one day. But I don’t want to anymore. Mabel…”
She kisses him, shocked at her own speed. His mouth opens to her and she wants to pull back from the strangeness of it even as she wants to fall into it, into him, his body so hard and unlike hers as his arms come around her, as she falls close against him: his breath, his fine dark clothing, his smell.
“Take it,” he whispers. Does he mean the book? His heart? “Hide it from me.” She barely understands him, dismisses it as unimportant. Her body aches as if she will cry, as if her heart will be too big. She cannot stop kissing him, though she barely knows how.
“Joseth,” she says against his lips. And then she does begin to cry. Love is as strangely new as the first storm in spring.
“But…,” Lady Varutchka says. “He has not taken you to bed?”
Mabel’s face burns. She shakes her head.
“Is this something you want, my dear?”
“I don’t know. Should I?” She wipes at her eyes and Lady Varutchka coos.
“My poor dear. So young.” She gestures for the maidservant to bring more lemonade and Mabel drinks gratefully, trying to cool herself, the sweat sliding down her back.
“I just want to know,” she says, calmer now. “Is there something dreadfully wrong with me? Every night it seems as if he will…but then he calls the cab and I have to go home, feeling...”
“Poor thing. You don’t look at all well.”
“I don’t feel so well…”
“But these things take time. Have you been amorous enough? Bought him anything, gotten out of the city—a trip?”
“It’s so hot. I can hardly think. I’d plan a trip to the moon by mistake…”
“Sit down, my dear. It’s quite alright you know. He seems content with you. You seem content enough, save your color. It’s only that you want more. And who can blame you? All young women want the world. When I was a girl…”
More, Mabel thinks to herself. Yes. More.
They walk by the river to kill the heat, leaning half limp upon one another, willing the breeze to stir. A street market is out today and Mabel casts about, looking for something she can buy him. There are fans and pieces of silk, ices miraculously contained from the heat. The tents and stalls of the vendors become more colorful the closer they draw towards the end of the river walk.
“You look very lovely, today,” he says. The sun dazzles in his eyes the way it dazzles the surface of the river. Mabel flushes. Sometimes it feels as though he will burn her up. At the last ball she had to sneak into another room just to breathe, the touch of his hands lifting her for the volte burning her through her clothes. Is it the summer heat? Is it mere frailty? Sometimes she thinks she is perpetually sick and that she would be glad to die. She has seen death at Saen Mira’s but none that left the victim smiling.
“Thank you,” she says now. “You are very kind.”
He smiles and touches her cheek, something wistful about him. He takes her hands and places himself in front of her, her skirts backed up against boxes of apples and peaches on the counter of a stall. Two women, strolling by, give her sunny smiles then bend their heads together, whispering. They walk more slowly as if they too are waiting for Joseth’s next words.
“Mabel,” he says, so much taller than her, his shadow hiding the sun. “I wanted to ask you something.”
Music starts at the other end of the promenade.
For a moment he goes on speaking. Then his tongue tangles, his brow knits together.
“Do you hear?” he says. He turns towards the music, towards the bright colors of tents: vermillion, purple. Drums beat rapidly in the still afternoon. Pipes shrill. Over all of it goes the sound of strings, searing, as she has come to expect from the music of the ballrooms and salons.
“My God,” he whispers. He drops her hands and moves off, walking fast at first, then running.
Mabel lifts her skirts to follow, fear growing in her breast. His face, turning from her, was as lost as the first time she saw him emerging from behind a mask. She wants to call to him but it takes every bit of breath she has to give chase.
Incense envelops her head as she reaches the dark purple tents. The music is huge, the pipes echoing off the overhanging stones of the great bridge. Men and women with painted eyes dance in a circle, the lords and ladies of Abendlied standing to the side watching or browsing the stalls of strange, dried herbs, entering tents that breathe out incense. Joseth stands so close to the dancers one of their embroidered skirts whips against his legs. The women are half clad in shirts made of coin. Men with no shirts at all sweat as they pluck strings, beat drums with the heels of their palms. Raga men. Mabel has only ever heard stories.
“Joseth,” she gasps, arriving at his side. She puts her hand into his but his fingers do not move to grasp her. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
He stares, transfixed at something in the center of the circle of dancers. Someone bends over, their identity hidden.
“It’s one of my songs,” Joseth says, almost inaudible. “They changed it but the strings are the same.”
Mabel opens her mouth to say something, but suddenly the circle of dancers parts and his face goes utterly white.
“God!” he says.
A girl dances in the middle of the circle, her hair as golden as the bands which loop her arms. Mabel cannot think where she has come from for the people of the Raga are all dark. The girl smiles and waves her veils, the transparent fabric circling her in watercolors. With her movement it seems the incense grows thicker. Mabel coughs.
“Joseth, what is it?”
“Gloria,” he whispers.
Mabel looks again. The girl has none of the angelic loveliness of the woman in the ballroom painting.
“No, Joseth,” Mabel says. “Just a dancing girl.”
Joseth looks as if he will weep.
There is another ball to close out the summer. Mabel dons another white gown of Lovelock’s choosing. When she complains he merely smiles:
“When you are Lady Byrne, Joseth will buy you any colored gown you wish. Brides-to-be wear white, my dear.”
She doesn’t tell him about the day on the promenade. She doesn’t tell him of the strangeness that has followed: how Joseth has covered the mirrors in the house and complains of shadows. She wishes that day had never happened.
The mirrors in the ballroom are uncovered tonight, of course, the better for the guests to enjoy themselves as they sail by in autumn colors. The first leaves have fallen and Abendlied’s sky is thick with woodsmoke.
Joseth’s face is blank as they waltz. The orchestra has been ordered not to play any of his songs. His eyes move continuously: from the painting of Gloria hanging covered above the fireplace to the mirrors and just as quickly back again.
“I could brew you something to calm your nerves,” Mabel says, trying to get him to look at her.
“You think to heal me, then?” He holds to her too tightly and moves carelessly. She has nearly collided with two other women already.
“I only want to help you, my Joseth,” she says.
He smiles without warmth. The distracted dance goes on.
“So, my dears,” Lovelock says, gliding up to them. Mabel dimly recognizes his dance partner as the mermaid from two seasons ago. She hasn’t much room for mermaids. She is sweating freely now, her hair plastered uncomfortably to her forehead. A rattle has begun in her chest she is sure will become another cough.
I ought to leave the city for the country air, she thinks. But she cannot leave Joseth.
“Lovelock,” Joseth says, a bare acknowledgement.
“Our Mabel looks lovely tonight,” Lovelock continues, oblivious.
“Mabel is always lovely.”
“She fills out that dress well.”
“Such things are not to be talked of.”
“Girls in white dresses with flowers in their hair,” Lovelock continues, oblivious. “Golden rings are said to be the best accessory for autumn.”
Joseth tightens his grip on Mabel’s hand, her fingers bending in her gloves.
“Joseth,” she begs.
He whirls her towards a mirror, leaving them both dizzy.
“Golden rings!” Lovelock laughs.
“No,” Joseth whispers. Then: “No!” A shout. Mabel has time to note the diamonds of sweat upon his brow before he releases her, sending her spinning into one of the mirrors. The glass rattles as she careens into it. Then she is on the floor, her white dress pooling around her.
Joseth backs away from the mirror, both hands to his head. The music falters, people gasping, retreating.
“Why do you follow me!” he screams at the mirror. If he notices Mabel at all he does not show it. “I see you,” he whispers. “I see you. What do you want of me?”
He talks now to something only he can hear, sees something only he can see. And in a moment, he sees the reflection of Gloria’s painting, the white cloth over it to hide her face.
He spins towards it and runs, scattering guests. A long table, piled with food, sits directly beneath the painting. He leaps atop it and from there clambers onto the marble ledge above the lion-guarded fireplace. With a swipe he catches the edge of the cloth and pulls it down, screaming Gloria’s name.
He stumbles then. Others scream as he falls from the ledge, landing with his back on the table. The punch bowl overturns and washes the floor with pink champagne. Joseth rolls from the table. A flower arrangement tumbles down around him, a white cake, half eaten, finishing up with him on the floor.
Mabel goes to him, pushing aside the other guests with some mysterious reserve of strength. Joseth is weeping when she kneels at his side.
“Forgive me,” he says. “Oh Gloria, oh love, forgive me. I should never have. Should never…”
“Joseth!” Mabel says, trying to help him up.
He raises his face.
“I should never have been with you,” he says.
It stings. For a minute Mabel cannot summon a thought. Then she tries, stupidly, to raise him. He raises himself instead and holds her speaking hard into her face.
“Don’t you see?” he says. “This isn’t what she wants.”
“Joseth!” Lovelock says, running up. “Are you trying to scare us all to death?”
“Take her,” Joseth says. He pushes Mabel away. “It was a foolish idea, Lovelock. I want no more part in it.”
“What are you saying?”
“My lord!” Mabel cannot believe this is him, cannot believe what he is saying. “My lord, look at me!”
“I love you,” she weeps. “Joseth, I love you! Don’t you love me?”
His smile is regret and sadness and disgust all at once.
“No,” he says. He begins to walk away.
Mabel throws herself at him. She doesn’t mean to, but then, it isn’t her choice. Her heart beats fiercely, hurting her each time as if someone is trying to pull it out by the root. Joseth is walking away and all she can think is that she must follow. This is her place, is it not? This is why she was taken from country to city.
She finds her arms around his leg but he won’t stop walking. His steps carry her across the floor, past the horrifying interest of the other guests. Is this another opera to them? Another amusement? She holds on, weeping. She knows he will tear her away. She feels the pain of it long before his hands find her and force her to let go.
“Please!” she shrieks. “Joseth!”
“No. Leave me. I want never to see you again.”
He untangles her arms, leaves her to weep amongst the shards of the shattered mirror. She can see his back reflected in them as he runs from the room.
“The doctor said there was blood on her pillow,” Lady Varutchka says.
“It’s my fault.” Lovelock. “I should have known it was too soon. He said to bring her. He said he would try.”
“Well, he failed. Poor girl.”
In Mabel’s mind a white mask comes away from an uncertain face. He grew more confident as the evening went on, but in that first moment: a hesitation.
He said he would try.
Could he have never wanted her at all?
When she is well again, or as well as they can make her, she slips out and walks the long walk across the city. She stands outside the manse, afraid of seeing him, afraid of not. She is rewarded at last with a single light, burning at the top of the house when the day becomes evening. Lovelock finds her standing in the cold. He will find her there on many evenings. She is simply drawn to the light.
Leaves fall. Joseth Byrne is not seen in the streets of Abendlied anymore, though his piano is heard, tinkling sadly in the autumn dusk. The streets are haunted. The park contains memories of their footsteps. Is that all love is then? A collection of memories? She holds them to her, her mind turning them like cards. If she could only see him. In dreams she runs through ballrooms, tearing away masks, searching for his face. There is an urgency in these dreams. A sense that time is running out. A golden shadow surrounds them. It is a struggle to pull his mask away. Sometimes when she does he isn’t there at all.
The last street market of the season takes place down by the river on a blowsy October day. Lovelock takes her and she goes because the house is driving her mad and because she feels the cold air might help her think more clearly. It will be winter soon and Joseth has not ventured from the manse.
There is a sweet pain to walking where they have walked. The colored tents are just as they were in summer, bleached a little under the brooding white sky. At a fruit stall Lovelock flirts too long with the salesgirl and Mabel keeps moving. There is the arching bridge, crossing to the other side of the river, the far bank lost in fog. The tents grow more colorful here. Vermillion. Purple. A hint of incense drifts towards her.
She wanders into the midst of the purple tents. No one dances in between the tents now, but painted eyes watch her from doorways, seeming all too familiar to her, all too knowing.
“Are you lost, dearie?” a voice asks her, thick as smoke.
Mabel turns. The woman, lighter than the other Ragans, wears a long robe over her vest of coins. Despite the cold, her feet are bare as a dancer’s. She pulls a golden fall of curls from her head, revealing her real hair: night-dark, woven with tiny bells. With a handkerchief she wipes away her pale face and turns from light to dark, from Gloria into someone real.
“You!” Mabel says. “My friend thought you were…” She trails off, helpless.
“Men see what they want,” the dancing woman says.
Mabel stands as if one with the cobbles, trying frantically to remember why she came. This place is as treacherous as any dream. The very air reeks of unfamiliarity, of strange spices, dizzying incense, spells.
Spells. She remembers now.
“My friend,” she says, striding determinedly towards the dancer. She has lost Joseth through the glamour of these people. They will repay her. “My friend had a book from you.”
The dancer nods as if this is the most commonplace thing in the world.
“You want a book of your own.”
“Magic is very dangerous.”
“Living is dangerous. I need the book. I will pay whatever price you want.”
The book the dancer gives her is vaguely silver and flat as a mirror. When she opens it the symbols become words. She never believed in magic but sitting there, clutching her handkerchief with its subtle pink stains she can hear the clock ticking off the moments to midnight and feels again that there is no time and no other way.
“I just want to see him,” she says.
I never want to see you again.
In the darkness Mabel makes a potion of her tears. She makes an incantation out of memory. She uses the words from the book to guide her, thinking all the while of how they parted, of the moments which marked them, of breaking glass and feathered costumes and masks she cannot pull away. He must not see her, she thinks, falling, spell touched, on the bed. She will fly to him, across the city, towards the single warm window at the top of his house where she knows he spends his nights alone. She must be invisible, silent as a memory, hard as porcelain so the winds cannot blow her from the sky.
The clock strikes at last and she rises—floats—up from the bed, out the window which she has left open. She feels cold yet the cold does not touch her. She has become a creature of glass and feathers. She feels the sickness rattle in her chest but it is distant, fading as she rises. Behind her she can sense the beating of her great, glassy wings.
She flies. The distant light at the top of his house can be seen from the sky. It seems the wind carries the sound of his voice.
Her heart beats fiercely against her glass breast. No time. He is in pain. His cry opens up an emptiness in the night, pulling her towards it. She thinks of all the things she will whisper at his window: “The woman in the market, she was not your wife.”
“You aren’t cursed, my Joseth. You made curses from your own thoughts.”
“I love you. I love you. I love you.”
The wind whips past her. She flies, urgent now. Faster. Faster.
The manse appears below her and she swoops down upon it. Down towards the source of the cry only she can hear. Down to the window that burns and draws her out of the darkness. A shape moves within, sharpening quickly as she descends. He is alone, but he hears something, senses something approach. His face is worn, unshaven, cast-down. He carries a brandy bottle. He approaches the window, his eyes searching, dawning amazement upon his face.
And she forgets. She forgets what she has done. She forgets she is a glass thing and that another sheet of glass rises between them. She forgets harsh words and anger. In the moment before she collides with the window his face blazes up to fill the world and it is not the face of Joseth who has forgotten her. It is the face of Joseth who once could love.
It is the last thing she sees as she hits the glass—before her body breaks apart. The pinions of her wings become a scattering of shards and spread through the night like stars. The pieces of her fall away. Down she falls into the depths of the garden: her fingers in the grass, her face in the treetops, her heart in the waiting flowerbeds. Later, when it is discovered what Mabel Lovelock has done, the garden is searched. But all the hired men find are bones.
They are both in the ground, now: Gloria and Mabel. The shadows he used to think followed him have moved into his head. They hiss continually of his coldness and he drinks to keep it at bay: wine, whiskey. Anything will do. He has enough spirits to last for years. No one will come to his dances anymore. The champagne cases languish in the kitchen, gathering dust like everything else.
Lovelock has moved from the city.
Why did you treat her so? She was only a girl.
Joseth has no words of defense. Everything he considered important before Mabel Lovelock turned herself into a glass angel is utterly useless now. He spends his days wondering about her. Why she did it. Why she found him worth dying for.
Cold tonight. The house echoes with memories of what it used to be. With no servants to tend it, it has run down and dimmed like cooling embers. Rain brushes up against it. Joseth settles by the fireplace in the great ballroom to drink. There is a great discolored square above the mantle where Gloria used to be. Dark curtains hang over the wall of mirrors. Why does he wait here, he wonders? In this shell? Why cling so selfishly to life?
A scratching comes at the glass doors, leading to the garden. Tree, probably. The park is growing wild. It will cover the manse, eventually, blot him from sight. He drinks. The brandy is like a heel, tapping down feeling, grinding it away like glass.
The scratching comes again.
He squints out the window. Rain, lashing by. Storm getting worse. Is there something out there? Something vaguely white?
He can’t see. He fears windows now. He remembers that night: something out there in the dark, a great swooping movement like wings. The window rattled. Something broke. For just a moment he thought he glimpsed her face.
A thin, white shape stands at the door. The rain smears the glass.
He must be imagining it. Like the shadows in the mirror that ruined everything.
“No.” He drains his glass and wipes his mouth, then marches towards the door, the white scratching shape. He throws the door wide…
And there is something in the dark. Something standing almost patiently, tapping its fingers on the glass. At first he cannot tell, but his eyes adjust to the dark and he sees it: bones. The rain moves through them. The skeleton is small, almost delicate. It follows him as he backs away, leaving watermarks on the dusty ballroom floor. He helped them pick her out of the garden himself.
Her bones. Her white bones.
“Oh God, Mabel,” he says. “Mabel.”
The skeleton holds out its arms.
He runs. He turns so fast he nearly falls, but he runs. He bangs through the ballroom doors, leaps over an object, a chair that has fallen in his path. With a pounding heart he tears down the hall, racing for the front door, another way out, around the thing, into the night.
Behind him, he hears the sound of bones.
Out the door, down the steps. Again, almost slipping. When he looks back a white shape is in the doorway. He flings himself down the path to the front gate and into the tangled park.
The bones follow.
It wants to take me to hell, he thinks, running through the woods, surprised at his own shock. He has killed her, after all. He has no reason to be on this earth. Perhaps some deity has realized this, sent his greatest shame to collect him.
He dives through the hedges that separate one path from the other, hearing the bones. He begins to weep with panic. How he can cling so desperately to life is beyond him, but cling he does. He tramples the flower beds, leaps bushes. On a mud-slick path he falls, rights himself, falls again. At the edge of the property he tumbles down a hill where the wilderness ends and the city begins. The bones follow quicker on the cobbled streets and he cries for help, beseeching the darkened windows of the mansions, the empty bell towers of the churches. If anyone is awake at this hour, they offer no help.
Rain makes the streets confusing and he has not been out for some time. Will this street take him to a causeway or leave him stranded in an alley? He tries to judge as best he can, but he is running out of strength. His limbs burn. Has he eaten recently? He can remember nothing but brandy and grief. Where can he go that the bones will not follow? Where can he hide?
Nowhere. He knows it. He led Mabel Lovelock to her death. To hide he would need to find another face, be another man.
At last his luck runs out. He hits a dead end and slips, hurting himself on the stones of an alley, brought to his knees. He huddles, his back bent. There is nothing left to do. Nothing he can say.
But as the bones come towards him he speaks anyway, the useless words which have brought him so much ill: “Leave me! Leave me! I beg you! Please, leave me alone!”
He plucks a rock from the ground and hurls it at the skeleton. Her arms are open. Even when the rock hits she does not falter. Her bones shuffle gently through the alley, ignoring rocks and pleas alike.
“Leave!” he screams at the last. The little skeleton stands over him, arms extended as if it wishes to help him up rather than bear him to hell. He puts his arms across his face and waits for it to take its revenge. Hot tears mingle with the sharp cold of the rain.
“Please,” he begs. “Leave me. Leave me.” And then, softer: “Forgive me. Forgive.”
He waits. The rain whispers around him.
He expects he will die here, felled by a blow as hard as bone.
He expects to feel the hard touch of anger, as he has been angry with her.
He does not find what he expects.
For Mabel Lovelock’s bones kneel and take him gently into her arms.
Hannah Strom-Martin’s fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, OnSpec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her non-fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons Online, The North Bay Bohemian, and The Sacramento News and Review. Most recently she co-edited the anthology the Pop Fic Review with Erin Underwood. She is a graduate of Bennington College (BA), The University of Southern Maine’s “Stonecoast” MFA Program, and the Odyssey Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. She currently resides in California.