by Cathrin Hagey
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The old nurse was sleeping, slumped in the sick room attendant’s chair. Her fat ran over the sides of the seat, threatening to pour all over the floor, or so it seemed to Leonora when she entered the room with Isabel. But Mama reminded Leonora of a pale queen; her soft curls had tumbled all over the pillow as she slept. Her lids were closed over the almond eyes.
“Climb up on the bed with Mama,” Leonora whispered. It was clear to her that the sick room was barely one-quarter the size of the nursery, and that the fire seemed too close to the bed. The old nurse took up one side of the bed. The other side was an inferno.
Leonora heard footsteps in the hall, but they were mere whispers against the soft carpet that lay over the oaken planks there. She took one look outside the sick room, and then she turned to focus on what was before her eyes: the fat nurse, still sleeping; Isabel lying beside Mama; the fire in the hearth on the other wall. There were no other chairs on which to sit, so Leonora stood watching the gentle rise and fall of Mama’s chest.
The only sound, above and beyond the crackling fire, was the periodic grunt made by the old nurse. Leonora was just reaching up to check that her hairpins were all in place when a stream of whistling air, what the doctor would have called a wheeze, came from Mama’s open mouth. It made Leonora shiver. Isabel pressed her face close to Mama’s.
“Mama,” whispered Leonora, “are you awake?”
The nurse shifted a little in the attendant’s chair, and Leonora saw the woman’s fat drip a little closer to the floor on one side.
Mama continued to make the strange whistling sound and began to make other sounds as well. Leonora heard gurgling noises, and a moan. She watched Mama turn toward Isabel and press her face into the doll’s stitched-on hair. She saw Isabel kiss Mama’s pale lips.
And then Leonora turned away from Mama and Isabel, for she heard Miss Brown shout, “I’ll have a carriage immediately.” Then she heard her father say, “Don’t leave us. Please stay, Miss Brown. Leonora needs you.”
Leonora went into the hall in time to feel the sweep of Miss Brown’s rough traveling cloak against her arm. Miss Brown turned to face Leonora before fleeing down the stairs. “Goodbye, my dear. I will never forget you. Be a brave girl for your mother.” And then Miss Brown gained the bottom of the stairs, spoke to someone there, and abruptly left.
Leonora turned and saw her father fade into his chamber at the other end of the hall. She understood that she would have no lessons that day.
She returned to the sick room. “What are you doing?” Leonora said to Isabel.
The nurse grunted. Mama groaned. Leonora went up to Isabel on the fire side of the room. “What are you doing to Mama?”
Leonora saw Isabel drink in Mama’s ragged breath. It appeared that Mama’s spirit flowed into Isabel, and not the other way around.
“No, Isabel. Not like that.”
Leonora put her hand between Mama’s open mouth and Isabel’s pursed lips. “Let me do it.”
Mama coughed, and something that looked to Leonora like foamy water sprayed from her mouth. Isabel laughed.
“Stop it,” said Leonora. She tried to push Isabel back with her elbow, but the doll grabbed Mama around the neck and held on.
Leonora tried to break Isabel’s hold.
Isabel laughed again and sucked in more of Mama’s breath.
“You’re taking her spirit,” said Leonora. “You’re hurting Mama!”
Isabel breathed in, deeply.
Leonora stood back and watched Mama gasp for breath. She saw Isabel’s wax arms creep more tightly around Mama’s neck, like two white snakes. Without thinking, she took hold of Isabel’s hair, and yanked the doll’s head away from Mama.
Instinctively, reflexively, Leonora reached from behind Isabel and unhooked the doll’s arms from around Mama’s neck. Then she cast the doll into the sick room fire.
It was dreadful to see the look in Isabel’s eyes as she began to liquefy in the blaze. Isabel’s face curled like a fading flower. The golden hair sizzled; sparks flared and died in succession. The smell went right to the back of Leonora’s head.
Isabel’s eyes glowed in the flames. The curvature of her body dissolved. The wax flesh became resin on the hearth floor, sticky, treacle, a pool of goo. The marble eyes baked on the flagstones.
Leonora swallowed the horror, taking it with the outward calm in which she had taken in others.
And then she climbed into the sick bed with her mother and mesmered her with all her might.
Leonora sent as much of her spirit into Mama as she could, and then she fell asleep and dreamed of walking arm-in-arm with Mama in the garden.
It was the fat nurse who first discovered Leonora lying in the sick bed with Mama. And it was the fat nurse who alerted Violet to the fact. It was Violet who first discovered the hardened puddle of wax on the hearth floor. And it was Violet who first realized that Leonora could not be roused.
“Is she dead?” said the nurse.
“She’s breathing,” said Violet.
And then Leonora’s mother yawned and stretched out her arms; one of her hands bumped the nurse, while the other bumped Violet, who was leaning over Leonora’s limp figure.
“Ma’am! You’re well again,” said the nurse.
“Yes, of course I am... Why is Leonora here, Violet?”
The nursery maid cleared her throat, but she had nothing to say in her defense, not having been to the nursery since the afternoon of the day before, and having the twigs and burrs on her back to prove it. So, Violet declared instead: “Look, Ma’am. The doll Isabel has been thrown in the fire. Leonora must have done it.”
And the fat nurse said, “Yes, I saw her do it.”
“And you didn’t stop her!”
The nurse grunted “No,” and tucked her chin into her chest.
“Take her to the nursery,” said Leonora’s mother to Violet.
“Shall I send for the doctor, Ma’am? After I take her to the nursery. I can’t wake her.”
“How should I know? Ask her father.”
When Violet had taken the girl away, Leonora’s mother, with more vigor than she had shown in years, knelt at the hearth, picked at the hardened wax, and collected the blackened marble eyes.
“Leonora cannot be trusted. She has a horrid disposition.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said the nurse, and she watched as her mistress gathered the fragments of the model child.
* * *
Afterward, the doctor pronounced Leonora incurably weakened, and possibly mad, and then he left in the abrupt fashion of the respected professional.
Leonora’s mother and father grew quite fond of one another again, in the days that followed, as they discussed what to do with their daughter.
Violet had run off with the stable boy, and Miss Brown had quit her post. In the end, they chose to keep Leonora in the sick room indefinitely, with the fat nurse in attendance, until such time as the girl’s strength and wits returned.
In time, Leonora did recover some, though not enough, of her vigor. She lived long enough to be able to gaze upon the fat, pink face of her newborn sister. But a few weeks later, Leonora, on the final day of her life, heard her mother say, “It’s a shame she has to be taken from us now, with her disposition so improved.”
The fat nurse grunted her approval of the sentiment, while Leonora’s father gazed with much love and affection on the laughing eyes of his latest child.
[Author’s note] “Leonora” is based on an earlier version that appeared as flash fiction in the anthology In Gilded Frame, published by Kind of a Hurricane Press, December 2013.
Copyright © 2016 by Cathrin Hagey