Chapter 9: Isabelle

Chapter 9: Isabelle


By breakfast Jane was already nearing exhaustion, but the work was worth it. The smell of bread filled the empty hall. She served two loaves alongside fresh butter and jam she’d found at the market. There were eggs as well, smoother and creamier than any I’d had before. “French style,” Mr. Percy said with some amazement, and Jane’s milk white face turned red as a rose. “You have been keeping secrets from us, Jane,” he teased. “These are excellent.”

That was all after Chauncey led his prayer, of course. Father would have pitched a fit if he knew I was being subjected to this.

“I must continue my studies today, children,” Lady Falmouth explained, “so I shall be in the library today and do not wish to be disturbed. Miss Annie and Jane have very many things to attend to as well.”

“Understood,” Julian said.

Mr. Percy spoke up. “Chauncey and I are making repairs to the house and shall be occupied as well, milady, though of course I am at your call if the need should arise.” Chauncey mumbled something and ate a final spoonful of eggs. He alone seemed to dislike them. Perhaps “French” wasn’t such a compliment in this part of the country.

Lady Falmouth continued her instructions. “I don’t want you in the town by yourselves, not yet anyway, and do stay away from the river. It can be more treacherous than it looks, and the land around it isn’t always steady.”

Julian and I changed into play clothes and headed in the orchard of dead trees. We brought our swords, of course, but our enthusiasm wasn’t especially strong. I wished I’d thought to bring my music, but we wouldn’t have all fit in the carriage with the instruments. Perhaps they could have left Miss Annie in London and used her spot in the carriage for my virginal. Or they could have left me. I could see little boats—wherries, they called them here—on the water and imagined I could hop on any one of them and sail to Holland and to my father.

I couldn’t even be certain he was there anymore.

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Lago Escondido

Lago Escondido

The crisp September sky blazed with a blue so rich it was almost tactile, and Rosa was sure its weight would someday make it peel off from the heavens and fall to earth and smother them all, except that the trees, still green for a few more weeks at least, reached up and pushed back, keeping the sky up and the earth down and straining with all their might to keep the two apart.

Rosa leaned back and took in a deep breath, letting the air fill her lungs and push them against her ribs until it almost hurt. The smells were colors, greens and reds and browns, and the cool air the spirits that helped them flow.

The door behind her swung open and the kids came out. About an hour ago the three of them, two young men and a young lady, stumbled out of the woods and came running up to her as if they had never thought they’d see another human again. Rosa had needed to put on the Big Hat to calm them down. She didn’t know why it worked, but the Smokey the Bear hat was reassuring to campers and hikers. It let them know they were safe. The three of them settled down and told their story. Rosa took them into the cabin and let them have some crackers and coffee, and their confused sentences slowed down until they started to make sense.

“She wasn’t there when we woke up,” said the taller of the two men, the one called Chris.

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In the morning I found footprints in the snow. I followed them from my bedroom window to the edge of the woods. I wasn’t allowed to go into the woods without an adult, and because this rule seemed reasonable to me I turned around and followed the footprints back.

Examined side-by-side there wasn’t much of a difference between my prints and these others. They were a little bit bigger, maybe. I put my foot inside one to check, and then walked in the footsteps until that became a game. I lost my balance halfway back across the yard and as I pinwheeled my arms to stay up the barest glimmer of a thought shot across my consciousness:

The footsteps go to my window and then stop. They don’t go back.

And then I hit the snow and the thought blew away. The powder puffed up around me in a crystalline cloud and fell back into my face. I had to turn to one side and then the other in order to build enough momentum to flip over so I could stand, and once I was up I stomped across the yard kicking up the biggest plumes of snow that I could with my new pink snow boots. I heard my mother inside and went in to demand cocoa.

“Are there are other kids around here?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, sweetie,” she said. “Did you see any when you were outside?”

“I thought I saw one last night, in my window.”

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The Snakes and History

The Snakes and History

During the height of the Mayan era a group of people who called themselves Snakes briefly overran the cities of the Yucatan and formed a powerful imperial state. Where they came from has been lost to history. How they built their empire, and how they lost it, is almost as much guessing as it is scholarship. Until the 1960s, actually, the fact that they had ever existed was mostly unknown.

When the Snakes fell, their rivals did their best to erase them from memory, and nearly succeeded. But today we can find what little remains of their monuments scattered throughout the Yucatan, identified by their imperial symbol, a stylized snake with an eerie grin. Archaeologists have pieced together a sketchy timeline for their rule, and shown how their society was organized.

Their cities, judging from the remnants that have survived, were amazing, and what we have learned of their history suggests that this may have been one of the most dazzling places on earth in the seventh century.

I imagine a young man growing up in the Snake capital, learning to walk along those streets, running his hands over stone buildings that, as far as he knew, had always been there, and would always be there. The myriad daily encounters that make up the bulk of life: cooking, shopping, meeting with friends, going to work. Love, children. Various worries that kept him up at night, the life-consuming tragedies that scarred him but left no imprint on the greater world.

I look at the towers of my own city, the ribbons of pavement that grid the ground beneath me, the long-term projects that take up all my time and energy, and the forgettable tasks and thoughts, innumerable as the stars. I understand that of the billions of us who walk the earth, very few are ever remembered beyond their own lifetimes. We are like grains of sand, not valuable in and of ourselves but in aggregate a wonder to behold. I personally will be forgotten but my time, my civilization, my world that I know will echo through the centuries.

I’m sure the Snake people felt the same way. How would it feel if by some accident one of them should step through time and find himself in his city today, overgrown with jungle and picked over with scholars? Would he point to places in a desperate effort to show that this field was where his children played, that this low wall had once been a house, that the people inside it were kind and generous and deserved to be remembered? Would he simply go mad? Or would he just stand there, unable to comprehend that his world that was all that there was could vanish so completely?

The Antique Mirror

The Antique Mirror

The antique mirror was sitting out on the street for anyone to take, and because it was pretty and because he needed a mirror anyway Justin Marlowe carried it home. For the first few blocks he was sure that someone would come out and tell him that he’d made a mistake, that the mirror belonged to somebody who had for some reason decided to leave it out on the street for just a few minutes. It was much nicer than the usual giveaway furniture on street corners, after all. So he went slowly, checking over his shoulder, prepared to apologize and return it to its rightful owner. After six blocks it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, and so he sped up. By now his arms were tired and he was sure he would drop it, but he made it home and carried it up the stairs to his little apartment.

It didn’t fit in with his furniture at all. Most everything in his apartment was cheap and looked it, either salvaged from the street or reluctantly bought at IKEA. The mirror had an unforced elegance, in a wood frame that bore traces of ancient gilding. He put it in his living room on the far wall opposite his front door, in between the door that led to the kitchen and the door that led to his bedroom and bathroom.

Justin’s apartment was small and in a shabby neighborhood, but he was the only one among his friends who could afford to live alone and he was quite proud of it. The neighborhood was already getting better, too, with more businesses moving in. The Ukrainian cafe downstairs was quickly becoming “his,” and the mirror on the wall suggested to him a sense of permanence. This was home, he decided, and the mirror would be the first step towards settling in here for a good long while and moving firmly into adulthood.

His girlfriend Karen noted the changes every time she came. First the mirror, which she stood in front of for much of the afternoon, admiring both it and herself. Then on his table a small and pretty vase he found at a thrift store in Dover. “I get fresh flowers every other day from the Korean lady on the corner,” he explained to her. “It’s actually not expensive at all to give this place a little life.”

The band posters in the living room were exiled to the bedroom and replaced with a couple of wood prints he found online for cheap. And then one day he had drapes on his windows, which he found at a yard sale in Dillard.

“What were you doing in Dillard?” she asked.

“Going to yard sales,” he answered.

After that they began going out together on Saturday mornings: to the antique shops in Southeast, the thrift stores on the Waterfront, the funky little shops near Washington Square, and the yard sales in the suburbs. Th things they bought all inexpensive but well-chosen, and it all looked far more valuable than it actually was.

They both updated their wardrobes with stylish things they found at vintage shops. Her roommates noted with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance that she was adopting his habits and gradually transforming her part of the apartment, too, even though she was spending less and less time there.

The mirror remained the centerpiece, though. He was on a tight budget, and couldn’t afford anything in the same league as the mirror he’d found for free on the street. And so he spent a lot of his time looking at it, despite himself. He watched himself drink coffee in the morning, send out emails in the afternoon, and have dinner with Karen in his apartment–a used cookbook found in a bargain bin and a few pricey but well-chosen kitchen items had transformed his house into Karen’s favorite place to eat.

And one morning he noticed a peculiarity about the mirror. He ran his fingers through his hair and in front of him his reflection did the same, but not exactly in sync with him. The effect was a bit disorienting, and he rubbed his eyes hard before looking again. He moved again and saw the same thing. It was subtle, the tiniest fraction of a second, but he had a feeling that he was somehow trailing behind his reflection, as if it were tugging at him.

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