That is Me
Everything began to change when Uncle Robert decided to move his wife and fast-growing brood to a larger estate further inland and closer to Edward’s family. Then one day she came to him with flashing grey eyes and a smile that seemed to swallow her face (he thought he’d never seen anyone smile so much, not even his mother), and didn’t leave again.
“I am going to be here always,” she said.
He was glad of that because he liked the way she smiled. It made him feel as if someone had lit a fire in the hollows of his chest, where he was so often cold.
“Which one are you?” he asked her bluntly. “I don’t remember your name.”
“I am Bertha, and you are Edward,” she said, laughing.
She was not completely right—he was not Edward and would not be as long as she stayed with him—but neither knew it yet.
* * *
He bows to her, kisses her hand. Paints a perfect smile on his face, a mask he has learned to hide behind. They dance once, but when she moves it is with a liquid grace that unnerves him, and he cannot bring himself to dance again. He is stiff, a wooden puppet for his father, and he wonders, briefly, if she is the same for hers. She never returns his smile, but he thinks: Why would she, when we are strangers sent to dance together and all that is real in me has been locked away. She would be smiling at a ghost.
The night wears on drearily, and though she is very beautiful and they have not stopped talking, there is a chasm between them. It is tiring to stretch words across, exhausting to span with meaningless glances. He begins to feel like a candle burned low, flickering whenever she looks at him with those dark sad eyes.
“Antoinette,” he says, and the name is too big for his mouth. He does not like it.
Her expression bends from startled, to bewildered, to hesitantly amused.
“Yes,” she says. “That is me.”
* * *
They used to play by a small creek that ran behind his house. She always muddied her skirts and got her sleeves wet, but he was careful to keep his trousers clean, fearful of what his father would say—
'No son of mine shall appear before the servants looking like a common vagrant. Never do such a thing again.'—and the tone was cold, like he'd rather have a stone for a son instead of this small restless boy. A stone, at least, could be kept clean and quiet and still.
They liked to play anything, but she liked best to play at sailors.
“Imagine that this is the ocean,” she would say, lowering her voice as if telling him an important secret. “We are in a ship, and you are the captain.”
“Why am I the captain?”
“Because you are a boy, and the captain must be a boy. Now, Captain, here is the wheel,” she said with a wide grin, giving him a large stick, “and you must steer the ship.”
“Where are we going?”
“Ireland, or the Continent, or the West Indies. Wherever you want to go.”
Edward (Captain now) had heard of those places, but did not know what they looked like, and did not want to go anywhere he did not know—
“Let’s go home,” he said, and he ran up the hill from the creek into his house.
“Eddie,” she called, seeing him in the doorway. “Come here, sit with me.”
He ran to her bed and pulled himself up. Mother smoothed out a space for him, dropped a kiss on the top of his head. He leaned against her, curling his legs beneath him and sinking into pillows that comforted and cradled. A hundred silent flames filled the fireplace, yet Mother still shivered. He pressed himself closer to her side.
Don’t be cold, Mama.
Mother’s hand reached out and tilted his face towards her own. “Oh, Eddie,” she murmured. Her fingers brushed lightly over a bruise on his cheek.
“Rowland told me I was bad,” he said. “Am I very bad?”
When he looked at her, there was a frown on her face that he mirrored. He missed her smile. He had not seen it in weeks. She did not answer but wrapped her arm around him, pulling his head to rest on her shoulder. There was comfort in her quiet embrace, in the continuing murmurs above him that he could not hear distinctly—the sounds which his imagination carefully crafted into a chain of I love you’s, over and over and over. It was not long before he slept.
Woke once when Mother’s body shook with coughing. Held on tightly until she was still and her breathing steady.
Eddie—his mother’s beloved child, who died when she did.
He did not weep when it happened. Later, Captain would crumple and cry into a comforting shoulder, but Bertha was not with him at first. At first he was alone, with only Edward left inside him, and only silence kept Edward strong.
He is such a good boy, but something is strange about him, they murmured when they thought he could not hear them. So cold, not like a child at all.
Yes, he thought. That is Edward. Not a child at all.
* * *
“Wait, Edward,” is all she says, and her voice is measured and soft like sand.
He looks at her then, looks for black ocean eyes and black waterfalls of hair, and does not find them. Instead there is a beautiful laughing mouth and sparkling grey spheres gazing at him, cool like a rainy sky. The head tilts up at him sweetly. For a moment his heart pauses, his hand trembles, he can't breathe. He blinks and stares, but the golden vision refuses to fade. It smiles at him, speaks his name again. Finally he draws in one shaky breath.
The words force themselves out of his mouth: “Good night, Bertha,”—He flees before anything else can slip out of him. His masks have all fallen in one instant and he cannot let her see and he wonders who is the ghost now, you or me? Captain’s heart jerks back to life and thrashes violently in his chest.
A door whispers shut somewhere behind him, hiding the shrinking figure within.
He keeps calling her that name because he hates Antoinette. Hates her songs and stories because he is sure they are not true, because he does not understand them, but also because they are so sad. He wants a wife who smiles without hidden sorrows in every curve. He wants a girl whose face is bright when she tells him happier stories of happier things. He wants—
Laughing, open-hearted Bertha. Her absence still claws inside him. She haunts him from the hollowing eyes of his wife and he tells himself he must, he must have her back.
“I hope you will sleep well, Bertha,” he says, and watches as Antoinette shrivels into herself, says nothing in reply. She lies frozen in her bed like a dead woman. He is irritated at her silence, but satisfied for now. Silence, at least, he is familiar with.
(She speaks as herself one more time.)
"Why do you hate me? Why do you never come near me, or kiss me, or talk to me?"
Because you are not and never will be the one I want.
"Why do you think I can bear it, what reason have you for treating me like that?"
Because you lie to me, woman, and besides you are so sad nothing could make you happy again. There you go again, telling me another sad story, this one the saddest yet, and you are talking too quickly but I still don’t know what you are talking about at all. When you laugh, it makes me shiver all over. Don't laugh like that, Bertha.
"That is not my name; why do you call me that?"
I want you to be silent now. No, I want you to stop lying to me. But there—now you will not talk because you cannot talk without lying. Look, I am near to you, I have kissed you, but you are not happy.
"Will you come in and say goodnight to me?"
Certainly I will, but only if you will be Bertha tonight. I must have Bertha tonight.
(A long silence.)
"As you wish," she says.
In the sharp shadows it is easy to imagine her hair golden-red and her eyes a lighter color. The last drops of Antoinette dissolve into the ghost that is Bertha for the sake of one dark feverish night. His mouth is still cold when he kisses her the last time.
* * *
"Hey, Captain!" she shouted to him, perched tall on a slippery rock. "Come play!"
But his father was there, frowning disapproval at them both, and he dared not go to her.
The second time, she dragged him out in the first hours of dawn, just the two of them, to sit on the cliffs above the beach and watch.
"What are we watching?" he asked, tired and confused.
"Everything, Captain," she said, eyes shining. "It’s so beautiful. The sky, the water—and the sun is just rising."
He watched it all, but thought nothing out there was so beautiful as the girl beside him when the faint morning light reached out to stroke her long, unbound hair.
"Do you remember I used to tell you about the mermaids who lived in the ocean, next to my house?" She laughed and pointed to where the water rippled and flashed silver. "There they are, do you see them?"
"Yes," he said, though he was only looking at her.
She let out a rapturous sigh. "Sometimes I wish I could be the ocean. I wish I could let it swallow me and just be."
"Me too," he said, though he did not.
Edward felt a creeping chill settle in his ribcage.
* * *
“You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name,” she says wildly, as if Antoinette might still live, as if Antoinette was not already a shadow lurking at the corners of her downturned mouth. Her spirit, though in its death throes, still writhes and bites him viciously. She curses him, cries like a river, calls him a stone.
Yes, he thinks. Edward is a stone. Always has been, since his father wished him to be. What did you expect? What did you want?
“Don’t you love me at all?”
“No,” he says, because he does not, cannot. “Not at this moment.”
A tiny voice cries at the back of his head: I don’t know how. But if you gave me time, maybe I could try to learn. I could try, if only there was time.
He pushes it roughly aside because it is too late, and there is such hatred in her eyes as he has only ever seen in mirrors. It scares him—so he hides himself in blind rage, hoping to drive away the fear.
He drives her away as well. Leaves her to drown in the flood of her own tears.
These days guilt pools at the bottom of his stomach when he looks at her, at the silent broken figure that once rose quickly, adoringly, to meet him. He tells himself he has done no wrong, that everything is her fault, everything is his father’s insidious scheme and the cruel magic of this place that mocks him with its deceptive loveliness.
He dreams once of Bertha lying asleep on the rocky ocean floor, the light shifting between dark, murky purples and mottled blues. He tries to pull her body to the surface, but his arms are so weak that he cannot even lift her from the rocks. He wakes crying with frustration. Sets his face in stone when he gets up, so nobody will know.
The pool of guilt deepens. He can do nothing to stop it.
Her eyes are black like charcoal, her hair rough and tangled. She is stiff, a wooden puppet.
He turns away, disgusted by his handiwork. Locks it up safely where nobody can see.
The guilt has turned to acid and devours him from the inside.
* * *
Time will play the surgeon: cutting deep, but soothing old wounds.
Edward was never a child, but he never grew up either. Another decade will pass before he does. He will strip off his mask, bit by bit—a slow, wearying process through the years—and bare himself to Time’s bone-shifting scalpel. He will begin to ache at night for every mistake he knows he has made. He will search long and hard for happiness, for something (someone) to right all his wrongs, but ten, fifteen years of smaller mistakes will only build up and weigh heavy on his chest. Many times he will not be able to sleep for the aching.
When she finally flickers into his life, her name will be short and sweet and will fit perfectly on the tip of his tongue. He will notice the quiet, steady flames behind her eyes and laugh in unchecked delight when they flash out to reignite his coal-black heart. He will let her move the most stubborn parts of his being, and watch in fascination as he remains himself but more alive, not like a ghost at all. The other ghosts will burn away, will haunt him no more—will leave him crippled in body, but freer in spirit than he has ever been.
“Edward, sir,” she will say to him, radiating joy to know he loves her. (And he will love her, fiercely and with an unparalleled passion, more than he has ever loved anyone.)
She will mean to say more, but he will interrupt in his happiness, take her impulsively in his arms and bury his wide smile in her hair.
“Yes,” he will whisper. “That is me.”