Maybe the first part of the story would be called The Bracelet, or else Bracelets would turn out to be the better name. Paulina suspected there were at least two, one an imagined version of the other, but she couldn’t tell which was which. How could she know? She herself imagined something made of intertwining strands, modeled on the actual bracelet her cousin had brought back from the island of Ceylon, or so he’d claimed. She’d been very young. She hadn’t seen it since. Now, sitting by herself in the stifling dark, she examined it in her imperfect memory: braided gold wire and elephant hair. “A mixture of the contrived and the biologic,” he had remarked in his high, precise voice, which nevertheless carried with it an ironical inflection, as if he didn’t expect to be taken seriously.
Her father’s cousin, actually, was what she had been told. Like all the men in her family he was handsome, with a lean, sensitive, clean-shaven face. His yellow hair was longer than necessary, as Gram often said. But the old lady had not yet closed her doors to him despite his eccentricity. She even treated him with grudging respect, because of his heroism in the old days. Not that Paulina cared about that. She distrusted every vestige of “the woah,” fought before her birth. Instead she appreciated his kindness, how he sat her on his knee and called her his little lump-cat, and told her stories about strange jungle beasts—once he had brought her the scooped-out shell of a pangolin. His visits were infrequent, parceled out between trips abroad and to a private sanatorium in Richmond. At forty-five, he’d never married. By the time she began to write The Bracelet in her diary, she hadn’t seen him in many years. She pictured his name—Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, CSA—engraved in a circle on the golden clasp. “Imagine giving something like that to a child,” her grandmother had said, not bothering to lower her voice. “Even to play with.” Then promptly she had stolen it, locked it away, forgotten where it was. When Paulina asked her about it later, she had started to cry. “I’m a lost, ’lorn critter,” she said. “Everything goes contrariwise for me.”
In times of stress, that’s what she often misquoted. The old lady seemed at moments to be losing her mind, part of a process of internal rot that Paulina associated with the summer heat. Once she had watched the workmen break apart a termite-infested beam in the basement of the Marshall Street house. Where was the queen in all that whirling debris?
That year Petersburg had not seen a single flurry of snow. Paulina had once read in a book how after a mild winter, summer would bring a succession of strange plagues, because nothing evil or despairing had grabbed its chance to die. Now in March the household had already suffered through a number of ninety-degree days. Bored and sweltering in St. Paul’s Church on the last Sunday before Lent, dressed in black as was required of her, she had listened to a lesson from the Book of Numbers:
And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.
And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died …
Then the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
Paulina imagined the old man twisting the brass serpent and fastening its tail between its jaws, just as her cousin the colonel had wrapped the golden bracelet in a helix pattern on her skinny, bone-white arm. But that wasn’t the only reason the text spoke to her. She also loathed that light bread, the disgusting buttered milk-toast that Andrew concocted in the mornings according to her grandmother’s instructions. So she sympathized with the people of Israel, whose God had punished them for their unhappiness, and then made them worship the punishment and even find comfort in it, as if the punishment itself could be the source of their salvation.
She guessed this brazenness was what made God so special. An ordinary person would have been ashamed to reveal himself like that, to Moses of all people, let alone permit the story to be written down and read aloud in churches, the words themselves like drops of boring venom.
Yet she was desperate for words, any words. Her grandmother had forbidden her to read anything for weeks, ever since Paulina had come back from visiting her childhood nurse in Walnut Hill, a woman who had lost all five of her own babies, and who—old now, past caring—blamed herself: “It was the milk. I poisoned them. I hated that man so much, it turned my milk to gall.”
This also sounded biblical—punishment to comfort, comfort to punishment. At home, when Paulina asked if it were possible to kill a child that way, she’d had to tell her grandmother she’d read about it in a book, which she’d found in the William R. McKenney Library—her grandfather’s library—around the corner.
“And is it true that Mars has water on it?” Paulina asked. “Water in the middle of that red desert? Some people think the Martians must be gigantic squid-like creatures, but I don’t believe it. I believe they’re more like us.”
Sooner hung for a sheep as a lamb. That same day, the old lady had told Andrew to lock up the glass-fronted cases in the hall. She was afraid of how the books were affecting her granddaughter. Only she said, “infect”—often, now, she made mistakes of that kind.
So deprived, Paulina set out to concoct a story of her own, set in the North, where freezing temperatures would kill the microbes, cool the blood. Before the atlas was taken away, she’d found another Petersburg in New York State, in the Taughkanic Mountains. Across the ridge, in euphonious Massachusetts, she pictured a village of white clapboard houses among the birches and the pines, the smell of pine sap like a disinfectant. She pictured something far in the future, eighty, ninety years, beyond malice and superstition and the clutch of memory. It would be a glorious age of new machines, of steam engines and airships. You’d be able to see for yourself what Martians looked like.
Gram had already told Andrew to shut the house in the mid-morning, pull down the blinds. Because like many people she prescribed to others the remedies for her own sickness, late in the afternoon she sent Paulina to her room to lie down in the dark. Relaxation had been known to moderate some types of nervousness, others not. Andrew, in his kindness, brought her pen and ink. “Yes, miss,” he said, “you sure need something. You’ll grow wild in there, cooped up.”
Her diary was a small book with marbleized covers. This was the third episode of The Bracelet so far. She wrote the false date of the future solstice (December 21, 1967), when Mars might possibly hang even closer in the sky. She blotted the ink, paused, and then continued in a rush, her pen squeaking on the page:
It snowd again during the nite, more sno than even the old men had ever seen. With what had faln the past month, the sno was ovr the windows in my room and the morning sun pusht thru it making prisms in the glass. That winter the streets were almost tunls, cleard dayly by steam-powrd pangolins becaus the sides tended to colaps. When there was scool I walkt on duk-bords ovr the ice. I had not gone to scool that week.
Sitting up in bed in the darkened room, using her dinner tray as a desk, she could scarcely see the mispelled words:
My mother was making bacon. I coud smel it. For a few hours evrything was going to be all rite, evn tho the enemy was al around the town. They had brot their machines down thru the woods. We spoke via the electrik tube and mother cald me down, first telling me to wake my sister in the next room. But Elly was alredy awake and I coud hear her laffing to herself. I was afraid of disturbing her and braking her mood but she shoud eat somthing, I thot. She had probably bin up since befor dawn working on her books if you coud call them that: leavs of papr cut into smalr squares and then sown together.
I went into the upstairs hal and nokt on her dor but there was no respons of cors. I did not want to disturb her. She was huncht ovr on her bed when I went in. The lite made patrns on the rug. She was working carefully and efishently but had alredy discarded sevrl finisht books.
I pikt one up from the flor. “Brekfast is redy,” I said, watching the bracelet slide up and down her rist. The lite pikt out the golden hair along her arm.
She leaned over her tray. She enjoyed writing in first person, inside the mind of a boy whom she called “Matthew.” As she wrote, she invented or borrowed the phonetic spelling and simple constructions of the future, when (she imagined) writing might finally serve to communicate thought rather than reinforce social distinctions and bedevil children. But would the world ever really change so much? There also she fumbled in the dark.
In addition, she thought this way of writing might function as a simple code in case her grandmother decided to snoop. The old lady was easy to confuse. “You think it is the same bracelet,” Paulina wrote in a new paragraph, “but your rong. They dont evn look the same.”
Dissatisfied, she chewed the end of her pen for a moment before crossing out those last two sentences. Then she continued:
Elly was 7. Her memory was perfect. She new evry prime number to 100,000.
On each page she had drawn 2 piktures with a carefl line between them. But the drawings themselves were sloppy and quik, the adventurs of a stik-figure vershun of herself in a landscape of enormous numbrs. In this one, Elly stood at the botm of a clif, preparing to clime up or else to hang a rope-swing from the top. She had grapld hold of the horizontl spike in the midl of a 3, a smalr number between 2 elongated digits. The clif face was 4467313569430909. Above it dark clouds of smalr numbrs hid the sun.
Somtimes I had herd my father discussing these numbrs over the speaking tube with a sientist from Princeton. “Your rong,” I’d herd him say. “They ar arangd in desending ordr akording to the faktrs of 2.”
She pickt up her dol, a 19th century antique that had belongd to father, musty and evl lookng with a gutta-percha hed. She raised her arm and the bracelet slid away from her rist, winking in the sunlite. It was a valubl pees from our mother’s famly. Now I coud see the first of the 4 niello plates, linkt together by simpl hinges. The insised patrn was clearest here. Later it woud be re-etched and redoubld, the blank places fild in.
The movement drew my atenshun to my sisters face, which until that moment had bin hidn in her golden hair. She was grimasing, “crying silently,” as she cald it, which ment it was a bad day, a “daynothing” or perhaps evn a “daybump” akording to her complikated lexikon. 4 clouds and 0 dors, meaning no filtr or barier between her and any source of hapines.
“Woud you like som brekfast?” I askt.
“Mother woud like you to com down.”
“No.” She was studying the bracelet on her rist as if it ment somthing. Somtimes I imagind the hole world was a book to her, somthing to be red, evry detail loaded with signifikans. Of cors she had no time for ordinary books, evn ones she had made herself.
“All rite,” I said. “I’l bring you somthing on a tray.”
Latr, downstairs, I made my report. “She woudnt com. She was looking at her bracelet.”
Mother, a shy womn with a mole on her nose, sat down acros from me. “Its the only prety thing that evr came out of my grandmother’s house. My cosn used to bounse me on his knee and call me his litl lump-cat.
Evryone thot he was exentrik but he was always kind to me. He was an old man, the only Confederate veteran I remember. Long white hair.”
Becos her parents life was so disorganized after her fathers court-marshal, she had had to liv with her mothers mother in Petersburg. This was during the 1920s and early 1930s. “Gram had an unlucky combinashun of senility and stubornes,” she said. “I usd to help her plant flowrs on Jefferson Davis’s birthday—she was president of the Virginia UDC. Lisning to her, you nevr woud hav guest the South had lost the war. She talkt about ‘the caus’ but nevr told you what it was. But it sure wasnt anything about slavery. She usd to talk about the Batl of the Crater—weve got our own siege now. Her mother was a Confederate spy.”
Becos the windows were snowd in, the kitchen was dark, lit only with electrik candls. Fire crackld on the harth. “She had platinum spectakls and her hair was puld back from her face, tite enuf to smooth out the lines. She nevr smiled becaus of her fals teeth. She usd to balans her chekbook with one hand while she was driving the ‘motorcar’—it drove me crazy. She said I was the same as her becos I had her name—Clara Justine. ‘Your a lost, lorn critter, same as me,’” my mother quoted in a quavring voice.
Normaly she was careful to expunj all traces of the South from the way she spoke: “But I usd to tel myself I was like the ugly duckling or els a chanjling from another famly. It terified me to think I mite be like her, part of her blood. Insted I was always a lost princess from a foren country, Serbia, or East Rumelia, or somplace like that in the Balkans, or els even somplace more majical, somplace underground—you no, Goblinland, tho Rumelia mite have been Mars as far as I knu.
She pausd. “Ellys like a chanjling now, of cours. My God it was hot. And dark. In the sumr she usd to tel Andrew to close up the house. He’d bring me the horible milk-toast around ten—I thot evrything she did was to spite me. The solipsism of youth. At eleven he’d rol the blinds down to the floor and close the curtans.”
“Who was Andrew?”
She shrugd. “Evryone had servnts in those days. It seems stupid to say, but I thot he was my friend.”
We sat on stools at the round tabl with the lion feet, pickng at the bacon and fryd bred. Father had already left the hous. My older sister was alredy gon, carying bukets of watr to the ice baricades. I was on the later shift sins I was only 14. My mother had an exemshn becos of Elinor, tho that was likely to chanje.
Now she got up to tend the electrik stove, and she was pakng som food into a basket. She rapped som warm bred in a towl. “My grate-grandmother was arestd with a basket of food for her brother in the Washington Artillery. But then when they serchd her, they found dispaches in her underpants. She dyed of tuberculosis, contracted in prison. Ive made som sandwichs, but I’m not sending any letrs. You take these to your sister. Shes on the dyk south of Weston Field where they play that game with the clubs and flags and the litl white bals. Then you come strate home. Its not safe to lingr.”
I puld on my rubr boots and butnd my wool coat with the woodn butns. My mother ajustd my wool cap and rapped a scarf around my mouth, like I was a litl boy. Then she pushd me out the door into the sno, into the cleft Father had cut to the kerb that he folowd to the largr kasm down the midl of Hoxey Street. Underfoot the ice was stird and broken by the horses hooves. The basket in my mitnd hands, I strugld down the street, the sno up to my shoulders in som places. It was a cloudles morning and the sun beat down. I past som of the men from the brik colej bildings in their make-shift uniforms, marching with their automatik muskets and electrik shovls—my fathers students, relesed for the durashun. For a few months there had been lektures in the evenings. But evryone was too tired now.
At the pond at the botm of Spring Street the men were cutting bloks of ice and I herd the chunk of the dynamo. Professor Rosnhime was there with his bushy beard that always lookt fake. Som of the boys had com to watch, and there I saw my frend. She waved and then came running. “Where are you going?”
“I’m suposd to bring this to my sisters.”
She frownd. “Its too erly for lunch. Let me sho you somthing.”
Nobody paid atenshun to us. She led me into the woods under the pine trees where the sno was shallo. She led me ovr the brook to the litl stone ice-hous where we met somtimes in summer. She was 16. “What do you want to sho me?”
“This,” she said and kist me.
We prest our cold lips together and then I followd her up the slope away from town. Finaly we stood in an opn medo on Christmas Hill where the wind had blown the sno away. I didnt kno if I shoud take her hand. Belo us we could see the dyk, the raisd embankment blockng the roads and sirkling the houses south of town.
We coud see where the enemy had torn down the trees and made a new road thru the woods and rold their enjns on the big logs. We lisend to the guns.
“Oh, look,” she sed. Mor guns now, and then the canons. Then we watcht the great behemoth slide down out of the wood, bellowing its smoke and steam, smashing hard thru the dyk and then exploding in a roar of sparks and dirty sindrs falling from the sky. The wind blew the smoke away, and we saw the soljers and the colej men along the dyk were lying down. No one was moving on the lip of the raw kratr where the enjn had blown up. But on the hilside we could hear the soft pop-popping of the guns.
“God oh God,” she sed.
I was carying the basket. I wanted to go bak, but she cot my sleve. We ran away, and I was crying. In the afternoon we ate the bacon sandwiches, crouching in a rocky del along the rij of the hil a few miles south of town.
We didnt go bak. Later after sunset, shivring and hungry, she tukt her chin into her coat. “Tel me a story,” she said—“your so good at inventing things. Coud you tel me an adventur story with a narro escape, but maybe with a happy ending at the end? Somthing with a boy and a girl who get away?”
Peopl said that about me, that I was good at making things up. But all I ever did was steal and plajerize and cobl things together. My mother used to say ther wer three things: the truth, our memry or percepshun of the truth, and what we make up. That nite I was too ankshus and tired and sad to think about those three things. I was woried about my famly and so was she. I thot I woud tel her a warm-wether story of the past. I woud use what was hapning rite now—she would like that. She woud recognize herself. But I woud mix her in with stories from my mothers childhood in Petersburg. And I woud cast them even farthr bakward into the safe time past, another 40, 50 years to shake them loos. What was Petersburg, Virginia, like in the 1880s or 90s? It didnt matr. Ther was no comfort in the truth. I stood up and clapd my mittnd hands and tryd not to think about what mite be watching our campfire, a glo between the trees of the wild wood. I blew out a mist of breth, choosing, because I could not think of a beginning, to start in the midl:
She had not been called down to supper, and it was already dark. She must have dozed off. Her candle had burned out. It was too hot in her room to lie under the covers, too hot to wear anything but her small camisole.
She lay clasping her doll with the gutta-percha head. She was startled when the sound came in the window from the Marshall Street side. Who was watching her? Her bedroom was on the second floor above the mews. Light seeped in through the wooden shutters. Of course before retiring she had bent back the window-lock with the penknife Cousin Adolphus had given her. She had pulled up the sash to catch the nonexistent breeze.
“You sound just like a book,” sed my frend. “So old-fashioned. ‘Before retiring…’ And whats a camisole? No—dont tel me. I can gues. Sorry I interuptd.…”
The sound came again, a rattle on the slats. In the dark room she put the tray aside. She slid out of bed and retrieved her dressing gown from the hook inside the door. Then she pushed open the casement shutters and peered into the street. She saw someone standing below her in the narrow, cobblestoned mews, and she recognized the colonel’s voice, a high-pitched whisper. “I’ve got the horses.”
“Where are you going?”
“Girl,” he said, “don’t argue with me.”
Unsure, she crossed her arms over her chest.
He made a hissing sound. “Andrew didn’t give you my letter? Be quick—”
They were interrupted by a soft knocking at the door on the other side of the room, and Gram’s voice. “Paulina, dear, may I talk to you?”
She didn’t sound angry. And what did she mean by “dear”? In the darkness, the girl climbed to the other side of the bed and to the door. She heard the old lady fumbling with the outside lock. But she had her own key on the inside. Turning it, she waited for a snarl as the knob shook. “Child, open this.”
“Just a minute.”
She found another candle stub, lit it, and pressed it into the candlestick on the tray where she’d been writing. She heard a noise behind her. The colonel had managed to climb up the wisteria vine below her window. Now he slid over the sill. Though he was dressed for riding, his shirt was made of institutional gray serge, and his cap bore an embroidered patch: Holyrood Hospital.
Too late he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror in the wardrobe door. He pulled the cap from his head and slid it into the pocket of his coat. Paulina was not reassured by his staring eyes and tangled hair. “Shush!” he said. “Don’t say a word.”
“Child, open this door! Is there someone there with you?”
The colonel made an exaggerated grimace. He pantomimed the need for silence with a high-stepping tiptoe and a long finger in front of his lips. This display of his antic self made her forget about the cap, and when with stealthy tread he came to her and whispered in her ear, she did not pull away. “That woman, she intends to murder you.”
This was shocking news, of course. “Child, open the door.” The knob twisted back and forth, and Paulina heard something scratching at the lock plate.
“Furthermore,” the colonel said into her ear, “she is not even your grandmother.”
Before she had a chance to respond there came a crash and then another. Something was smashing through the panel of the door next to the lock, a blade of some kind. She’d moved over to the window, but now she turned. With the candle flame between them, she saw Andrew mostly in silhouette, lit from behind by the brighter gaslight in the hall. Dressed in shirtsleeves and suspenders, he carried an axe in his hand. He reached through the splintered panel and unlocked the door.
The wallpaper behind him was garish and red. His face shone with sweat. But then his expression changed. He ducked his head and disappeared, retreating back into the corridor. Paulina turned to her cousin; he had opened his shirt and pulled a long-barreled revolver from a holster underneath his armpit. He stretched out his left arm, pointing the gun, and for a moment they were alone.
He peered out the window. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed and wiped his high forehead, running the fingers of his right hand over the crown of his head and back through his long hair. “I’ll get dressed,” Paulina said, uncertain.
“Oh, but it’s too late. They will have taken the horses.”
“But … didn’t you say we had to go?”
“In a minute. When they arrest you, be sure to bring that book—what’s that, your diary? Perhaps they will let you make a record. And your doll. You know it was the one thing they let you keep after the Battle of the Crater. A gift from your real mother.”
Eyes on the door, the gun silent in his left hand, he held out the other one and she took it hesitantly, for the sake of the lump-cat and his kindness through the years. “The diary is so I can talk into the future,” she said. “Maybe I can talk to the people there.”
He smiled. “Of course. That’s what writing is. What else could it be?” He put up the gun and called out toward the broken door. “I surrender. There’s no need.”
Then came a pause, and some whispering in the corridor. The door slammed open and some men were trooping in, four members of the Petropolitan Police with their high hats and brass badges and mustachios. Paulina crossed her hands over the lapels of her dressing gown. Adolphus Claiborne put his gun down on the floor. Gram was there: “I was afraid he’d hurt the child!” The colonel stood with his neck bent, his face hidden in his hair, while one of the policemen held his arm. But at the last instant he wrestled free and was gone out the window while the police shouted and cursed.
Paulina sat down on the edge of the bed where he had been. She closed her eyes. In her imagination she could see him slithering down the wisteria and then jumping the last distance. She could see him running up the mews, his boots striking sparks from the cobblestones in the steaming night. When she opened them again, her grandmother was standing beside her, a small, thin-lipped woman whose face was scarcely higher than her own.
She hugged her doll and wondered if what the colonel said was true or even partly true. How had she found herself here in this terrible place? Mrs. McKenney at that moment looked like what she was, one of the first citizens of the town, relict of a judge and congressman who had given his house for a public library. She took off her platinum spectacles with the carved floral pattern. She polished them with a monogrammed handkerchief she took out of her sleeve. The temple bows ended in sharp points. She thanked the officers for their prompt response. She showed no sign of explaining, or needing to explain, the shattered door panel, or even what had happened in the room. But after a moment she took some money from her reticule and then the men marched out again, and the corridor was empty.
Paulina glanced down at the floor beside the bed. Her cousin’s revolver had disappeared. Perhaps he was a madman after all. “Child,” Gram said, “that was unfortunate. Did he hurt you in any way, or give you anything? You have Andrew to thank. Because of him we were forewarned.”
“You might have been forewarned. I wasn’t.”
“Child, don’t argue—”
“You used me as bait.”
“Child, he is a dangerous criminal, wanted by the police. We gave him too much credit, because he was with Mahone at the Crater’s Mouth. Let us not think about it anymore. Tonight is a special night. There is a celebration in your honor at the library. These clothes are not suitable. It is time to put away your doll.”
Paulina stared at her. As always, under her gaze the old lady seemed to wilt, and soften, and resume her doddering old self. Blinking, she bowed her head and then scuttled sideways out the door, holding her skirts as if there were some puddle of something on the floor. Andrew came in, his face so full of blandness that Paulina doubted her own memory even of something not thirty minutes old. She had to look back and forth between him and the smashed door, recasting in her mind his staring eyes and shining teeth, the axe in his hand.
She rose to her feet, stood beside the bed. “Miss,” he said, bowing slightly. “Your grandmother has asked you to come downstairs. She has chosen some clothes for you.” He laid something wrapped in paper on the end of the bed.
Paulina studied his familiar face, trying to figure out how she should feel—relieved? Betrayed?
“Andrew,” she said, “my cousin gave you a letter.”
His smile, intended to be reassuring, already showed some strain, some underlying grimness.
He moved to the window and shut it, at the same time examining the broken lock at the top of the sash. His hair, straightened and brilliantined, shone like a solid surface in the candlelight. Paulina watched him give a quick signal through the glass, a flick of his gloved fingers. “Miss,” he said, “I’ll be outside in the hall.”
“Please wait for me downstairs.”
“I’ll be outside in case that fellow returns. Mrs. McKenney is awful concerned.”
“Please wait downstairs. That fellow is Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, my father’s cousin, whom I’ve known my entire life. You had a letter from him. What did it say? Where did he intend to take me … in such haste?”
“Miss, he’s no kin to you. Just so’s you know.”
When he was gone, when she was left alone, Paulina saw her diary and her doll, also, had disappeared, though she had not seen him pick them up. Bewildered, she sat for a moment in silence. That night familiar things had turned unfamiliar and then back again. She got up to close the broken door and then stood behind it, trying to maintain a sense of privacy as she took off her robe.
On the bed, inside the tissue paper, carefully folded, lay a white-lace-and-chiffon princess gown, embroidered with rhinestones and seed pearls. There was a tiara and even a scepter, and as she unwrapped it Paulina realized what she was holding. This was a Mardi Gras dress. Tonight was the night of the UDC Mardi Gras ball, which Gram gave each year in memory of her own father and mother, both long-deceased, Addison Pickerel, the “handsome captain of the Crescent City rifles,” and Justine Lockett-Pickerel, the spy.
What had Gram said? A celebration in her honor? In previous years, Paulina had never been allowed to attend. Now she was sixteen, maybe that was going to change.
Not knowing what else to do, she made herself ready. As she slipped the dress over her head, as she pulled it down over her narrow hips, she sensed tiny intimations of disaster. But they were interspersed with other feelings: excitement, even anticipation. She picked up the scepter.
At that moment a distant orchestra commenced their program as if they had been waiting for her signal, not in Marshall Street, but somewhere in the big house around the corner on Sycamore, the William R. McKenney Library, which her grandmother reclaimed once a year for this event. Over the strains of the waltz, Paulina heard the first explosions of squibs and bottle rockets. And it occurred to her that everything so far that evening had been part of a performance, choreographed and rehearsed, the onset of a festival of chaos and reversal in honor of the lords of misrule. All her life she’d had to wear black whenever she went out in public, but not tonight. She was a tall, skinny girl, too tall for most of the clothes Gram got for her. But this gown fitted her as if it had been made especially, with a tight bodice and a row of rhinestones up her back.
When she came into the hall, she saw Andrew wore a striped waistcoat under his jacket, and was waiting to escort her away from the wrecked door. He followed at a discreet distance as she stepped downstairs, then moved ahead of her to unlock and thrust open the door onto the street. “You look very pretty, miss,” he murmured as she walked past him onto the porch.
“Thank you.” This was not an impression she was used to. Touched, despite herself, with a sense of gratitude that almost felt like happiness, Paulina stepped into the street. Behind Gram’s motorcar, pulled up at the curb, horses had stood under her window. A houseboy was sweeping the evidence into the gutter.
She looked up at the sky. For many weeks she had been observing the progress of the red planet, which that spring was closer to Earth than any time in memory. Sometimes it was so bright in the early evening, before the lamps were lit, that she saw it from her bedroom window.
Tonight the sky was low and close. Paulina followed the lanterns that hung from hooks in the brick wall, glowing spheres in the sweltering mist, each surrounded by a cloud of bugs. Already she could feel the sweat along her arms. In her dancing shoes, she stumbled on the cobblestones. With Andrew behind her, she made her way around the corner to the library, where, in serried ranks under the porte cochere, she saw the leadership of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and not just the Virginia branch. Some of these ladies, identifiable by their bright cockades, were from Georgia or the Carolinas, some even from faraway New Orleans, where Gram’s mother had died of tuberculosis in the Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street, a martyr to the cause, whatever cause it might have been.
The orchestra, stashed somewhere out of sight, ended their rendition of “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and swept immediately into “If Ever I Cease to Love.” Gram—Mrs. McKenney—stood with the guests of honor. She wore a headdress of ostrich and egret plumes with an enormous paste-and-marcasite medallion in the front. She looked ridiculous, an impression furthered by her fumbling hands and doddering gait, her expression of soft senescence so at odds with the platinum-pointed sharpness she had shown earlier in Paulina’s bedroom. Perhaps for that reason, the girl found herself comforted by what ordinarily exasperated her. Later on, when she tried to reconstruct how it was possible that she should so quickly forget the colonel’s warnings, she thought it was not only because of the dress. But it was also the way Gram wagged her chin as she spoke to Miss Lavinia Bragg and Miss Annette Jackson, and the surreptitious way those two ladies caught each other’s eye and tried both to suppress and reveal their condescending smiles. Paulina knew how they felt. In any case, there was no danger here. Cousin Adolphus must have been wrong to think so.
No one else carried a scepter. Andrew led her up the library steps, up into the atrium, and up the grand staircase to the ballroom on the second floor, which was usually kept locked. Ordinarily colored people weren’t allowed inside the main library building, though there was a room in the basement with a separate entrance, specifically established in Judge McKenney’s will. But Andrew, in his striped waistcoat, seemed to have a ceremonial role in these proceedings; he led Paulina to a dais in the middle of the floor, and then left her to escort the others to predetermined places on the raised benches lining the walls.
Standing on the dais, observed by so many eyes, in her mind Paulina moved as if through alternating currents of reassurance and unease. But even so: perhaps this was the night, she thought, when she would learn something new about herself, something real. Maybe she would learn who her parents were, or maybe something else that was all her own. Surely that was worth a risk. Now, finally, Andrew was closing the doors as, smiling and nodding, her grandmother moved toward her up the center aisle.
For the second or third time that evening, as she moved she seemed to change. Inside the hall the gas chandelier gave off a new, hard light, different from the soft luminescence of the fog-bound lamps in the porte cochere. The gas jets were like little tongues, and the light reflected from the surface of her grandmother’s metallic gown as if she were encased in mirrored armor. At the same moment her ostrich-feathered headdress, ludicrous outside, appeared suddenly menacing, like the device on a medieval helmet, or the horsehair plumes of the ancient Greeks.
In a moment, as she looked around, Paulina found herself surrounded by a host of soldiers—the other ladies in their sham finery, similarly transformed. The raised dais on which she stood, scepter in hand, no longer seemed a place of cynosure and rapt display, but instead, suddenly, a prisoner’s dock. The doors, as Andrew slammed them closed, snapped the sound of the orchestra in half.
Gram drew her platinum spectacles from her reticule and slipped them on. She spoke into the sudden silence: “Delegates. I have summoned you here from each state chapter of our great confederation, which is—tonight—in urgent danger. As we stand here, our enemies are on the march, threatening all we have built during the past sixteen years since the day of their surrender. As some of you know, according to the terms of our agreement, the leading families of our defeated foes gave us their firstborn daughters, future leaders whom we took into our homes, raised as our own. Since I telegrammed the news, forwarded from our intelligence services, that the Yankees have repudiated the obligations of their treaty, have reneged on their reparations, and are once more determined to attack, I learn that some of you have already taken matters into your own hands. While I understand your frustration, I, as your president, can by no means approve of any actions you might have pursued in a spirit of vengeance, which is liable to reflect unpleasantly on our organization, and also the ideals of Southern womanhood we have sworn to uphold. I refer especially to the virtues listed in the preamble to our charter, among which are chastity, graciousness, and prudence. Anything in the nature of what the Spaniards call an auto-da-fé, or else a ritual disembowelment, is therefore contrary to our founding principles. Blinding, maiming, or removal of the tongue are all likewise anathema, unless preceded by a public inquisition, as now.”
There were no windows in the hall. The air was humid and stale. Many of the ladies had taken out their fans, which glinted in the light.
“As your president,” continued Mrs. McKenney, “it was my duty to raise up the eldest daughter of the Yankee empress almost as a member of my own family. I had thought that even if the peace were preserved, I would provide a service, and send her back to her mother inculcated with the virtues most precious to us. That, obviously, is not to be, though it is impossible for me to avoid shedding at least a metaphorical tear at this lost opportunity. In fact, my wish was probably a vain one born of my own sentimentality. This very evening I found the girl conspiring with a well-known apostate. It was only due to the vigilance of my manservant…”
So her cousin had been right all along. Paulina let her scepter droop. Now others claimed the right to speak. They raised their armored fans and Mrs. McKenney recognized them: delegates from the sovereign states of Alabama, Georgia, and even the Texarkana Republic. But it was soon clear that they did not intend to protest or intervene, or make an argument for leniency, based, perhaps, on youth or innocence. Instead they asked for clarification, or else suggested methods and locations. Mrs. Meribel Lewis, whose father had been hit by an exploding shell at Second Manassas, suggested something involving dynamite, a substance patented by a Swedish chemist thirteen years before. Others disagreed. Rejecting this newfangled technology, they debated the merits of a firing squad.
Copyright © 2014 by Paul Park
PAUL PARK is the author of A Princess of Roumania, and numerous other novels. He published his first novel in the 1980s and swiftly attracted notice as one of the finest authors on the "humanist" wing of American SF. His powerful, densely written narratives of religious and existential crisis on worlds at once exotic and familiar won him comparisons with Gene Wolfe and Brian Aldiss at their best. He lives in North Adams, Massachusetts.