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The Carousel

By Toni Scales

I sit in front of the vanity mirror, staring at my reflection multiplied within the double connecting panes.

What soothes my trembling hands is the miniature carousel before me, lying squat upon the mahogany surface of the vanity and turning at a caterpillar’s pace. It is an elaborate, well-crafted thing, for it was fashioned before the Roaring days and once belonged to my grandmother as a young girl: gilt-embossed, many florid lines and details about its verdant base, delicate gold filigree horses moving round and round, up and down... It is somewhat dusty, though. Cobwebs faintly glisten and creep throughout its ribboned posts, trembling slightly with the movement as I will my own fingers to desist their soft quivering. Deep from within the darkened recesses of the carousel’s body comes the grinding and squeaking out of an innocent and melancholy tune–but oh tonight I am innocent but not melancholy! For tonight the ballroom of this boardinghouse where I have spent the past ten years of my life will be dressed in flowing streamers of gold and silver lamé, and the arched bay windows will be thrown open to let in the musky evening fragrance of the rhododendron blossoms. First we will enter, the ladies of the house, then the men will saunter in (for this is an upscale boardinghouse, a proper boardinghouse that follows all the customary rules and traditions of respectable society).

And for some few hours, all will be heaven, indeed.

With the carousel turning, I add the remaining touches to my appearance: the fine, pale powder, a spritz from the perfume decanter, one delectable wave of lavender water sent rushing and swirling throughout the punctuated, promise-tinged air. I do not care for the style of cosmetics en vogue these days among young ladies such as myself: the heavily-blackened eyes and nude, nearly imperceptible mouths–as if a woman were some strange Cheshire cat, eyes feral, glowing, and suspended in mid-air with nothing to accompany them! This evening, my own lids are softly dusted in dove-gray powder, my lips emboldened by a deep rose. I am wearing a gown of white ribbed silk. My slender neck is encircled by a pink velvet ribbon, and in the center of this ribbon is suspended an exquisite cameo, also passed down to me by my grandmother.

One last furtive glance in the mirror, and I can hear the other ladies shuffling noisily out of their rooms. This is a boardinghouse that does not discriminate in age or wealth, but it is still upscale, and there exists the unspoken doctrine that we are all ladies, so we must act like ladies. I leave my room, enter the hallway, and stare nakedly at the other women. Their trepid, hungry excitement is palpable even as they wave and greet me and begin to form a ragged line at the main door. But how odd they seem tonight, their sense of fashion is awkward and clumsy, their painted slashes of lips and rouged, sunken cheeks appear garish and bitterly disparate from the lively atmosphere. Their own gowns hang like shrouds upon their gnarled, emaciated bodies. Oh, they are not lovely like me–I am the belle of the ball tonight, I am Scarlett! In the prime of my youth, pale and plump, not yet embittered, not yet hollow-eyed and empty and love-lost.

* * *

The lady who runs this boardinghouse, Mrs. Hatherly, once told me I had murdered my own grandparents. This is the reason she took me in, for she accepts under her care many lost yet still respectable souls. But she has been greatly misinformed. Still, I have never bothered to correct her, for she is a kind, genteel matron, and I do wish to be polite. I was raised in this manner, you see. I possess inherently good breeding.

But from time to time, I do experience bittersweet, nostalgic memories of my grandparents. My grandfather wore large, wire-rimmed spectacles that made his eyes seem as if they were peering at me from the bottom of a fish bowl. I never knew what happened to my mother. My grandmother would never speak of her; she would only tell me, if I happened to ask, that my mother was too ill to care for me, and therefore, they had adopted me as their own. I always felt that my grandmother was not telling the whole truth, that my mother’s illness was of a nature far deeper and darker than she cared to allude to... But as the years passed, I learned to keep my curiosity (as well as every other disquieting emotion) contained inside the fragile vessel of my own body.

Grandmother was very kind to me, though. She was an innocent old woman, one of those rare souls who only perceived the good around her. Nature had rendered her blind to much of the darkness that invariably inhabits the dusty chambers of the human soul. And how I remember her dusty parlor, the finest room in their house, seldom used, with furnishings and decor that remained from the 1920's (how they were still trapped within the silver-lipped web of their youth!). As a young girl I would sit for hours in that parlor, sipping phantom tea from glazed Haviland cups and entertaining a small pageant of phantom guests. It was there I learned to be a lady, to speak with poise and grace, to hold my fingers gingerly with the digits slightly raised in an air of pleasant expectation. There was even a rusty old phonograph that sat upon an ornately carved curio chest, and I adored her scratched 78 recording of “The Days of Wine and Roses.”

And it was this theme, wailing and fuzzy as if evanesced from some ethereal dream, that perfumed the backdrop of my silent ghost galas.

* * *

It’s the eyes that haunt, it’s the eyes I only remember about a person. When I remember someone, I remember their eyes solely, as if they were some strange Cheshire Cat hovering about in the murky gray areas of my mind, devoid of a mouth to speak and a nose to breathe.

* * *

After we ladies have spent a respectable time loitering impatiently in the ballroom, the men come shuffling in–such stark, terrible glamour to behold!

Suddenly I spot him, the one I have been waiting for, have spent the last three hours preparing myself for. My breath lodges in my throat, for tonight the vision of him is almost too lovely to bear.

He leans against one of the Corinthian columns: a tall and lean figure in an ebony tuxedo, some might say gaunt, with hollowed cheekbones and heavy eyelids. There is a tortured, ashen quality to his face, some essence of a shut-in life that has produced the fossilized remnants of desperation. He wears round-rimmed spectacles, and a fringe of pitch-black hair flops roguishly in his eyes.

After a time, he notices me watching him, and he walks towards me. Suddenly I can hear nothing. All is suspended as he strides to the spot where I stand transfixed, as if we are caught in some strange force field where all is slower and only he holds the power to move.

He extends a long, graceful hand.

“Shall we dance?” he asks in a voice laced with honey and black velvet. I nod, and we glide out onto the polished floor, dancing close together, the orchestra performing the soft, melancholy strains of a Tchaikovsky waltz. The scent of him is sandalwood and spice and something painfully, deliciously male. His gaze has ensorcelled me, and I cannot tear my face from his. Our bodies are pressed close to one another when I feel his erection straining against the silk of my dress, and instead of crying out in shame and horror, instead of alerting one of the elders, I welcome it. How agonizingly sweet it is this evening–oh, he wants me, oh, he loves me!

“Come out to the terrace,” I whisper excitedly in his ear, rubbing against him as if to erode the fabric that cruelly separates us.

His beautiful face grows pained. “I cannot,” he whispers.

“You would reject me?” I ask.

“But I must,” he replies, glancing nervously about him.

“No,” I whisper. “You don’t understand. Tonight was meant to be different. It is our night, a night of magic and new promises. We need not fear anything this sacred evening, nor anyone.”

“Ah, my little Lucy,” he murmurs in a breath of frost and glass. “You were always such a selfish child.”

I flinch, hurt beyond words, but my hope has produced a throbbing, white elation that cannot be ignored. “I did not mean to be selfish, Gregory. I was simply thinking what a lovely time we’d have if–”

“No, Lucinda!” he shrieks, and the room falls silent. The scent of sandalwood has grown cloying, sickly. For a second I witness the storm clouds of fury etched upon his brow, his pupils as they grow in such moments: tiny, fierce marbles of blackness. But the exchange has ended, the storm is subsided, and he walks away. I feel myself falling, as if my spirit were abandoning me and slipping down a lightless cavern. It is only then I hear the distinct sounds of chaos occurring around me: glass, tables, chairs being upended, the distant, bird-like screams of women.

And throughout the kaleidoscopic blur of it all, I think of how the awful clarity of splintering glass tends to pierce me straight through, as if human hearts were fashioned from such fragile stuff, and meant to be played in brittle, tinkling arpeggios.

* * *

It is much later that I sit quietly, my tears dried, subdued in a room Mrs. Hatherly has deigned the “quiet room”–one of rest and meditation. But where is my evening gown? It seems I am dressed in something else, a fabric not soft like silk but tough and impenetrable. Though I can still move my arms to lift a cigarette to my lips, they feel weighted down and sluggish, like the sensation one has while being pursued within a nightmare.

Soon Mrs. Hatherly enters the small room, sits herself at my table, and stares openly at me. I am still smoking, though I dare not blow smoke in her face, for that would be too unladylike.

“Lucinda, who were you dancing with tonight?” she asks at length, futilely attempting to rid her peacock-blue blouse of creases.

“You know him,” I say, pausing to languorously exhale a thin stream of acrid smoke. “‘Gregory’ is his name.”

A pause. “Oh, I see. It was the young man this time, I presume?”

“Well, of course,” I laugh. “Didn’t you see him?”

She looks away, then back at me. “Well, Lucinda, no, I cannot lie. I did not see him. I only saw you dancing in the middle of the common room, your arms upraised."

Ha, I think. Even her own eyes misinform her!

She sighs, a hollow irritating sound, then drums her long-nailed fingers upon the table, turning slightly away from me. “I was afraid we might have an episode tonight, what with the dance and all,” she breathes, turning back to confront me. “Ah, so much progress, and then this. Of course, I’m to blame, and not you. I’m your doctor, after all. I should have realized that the very atmosphere of the dance might cause a regression...”

I know my face remains impassive, and a pathetic sense of urgency crosses her own visage. I think she might reach out and clasp my hand in hers, but she doesn’t.

“Oh, Lucinda, you were so very sick when you first came here–do you remember? Your night terrors were debilitating, your delusions were out of control, but recently you’ve been so calm, so demure. I couldn’t believe how lovely you looked this evening; not even a mirror to guide you, yet you made your face and hair up so perfectly...” Those sickly pleading eyes, how they fill me with such rage! “You know, I was intending to surprise you with this good news tomorrow, but I suppose I’ll have to inform you of it now. I had just devised a new plan of recognition for us to pursue, and one that might lead to your eventual discharge. It’s been proven to produce fast yet excellent results.”

“But what would I possibly have to atone for?" I ask with incredulity, tapping my ash into the tin ashtray upon the table in as much a dismissive manner as the fabric will permit.

To my humor, her lips purse slightly, a gesture somehow familiar. “Lucinda, I know this is entirely the wrong procedure... But I want you to think very, very hard for me. Do you remember what you were doing when you were found at your grandparents’ home, all those years ago?”

“Yes, I was watching over my grandmother. She was sleeping.”

“Lucinda, she wasn’t sleeping.”

“Yes, she was. She had discovered what my grandfather was doing to me all those years, she had finally opened her eyes and witnessed it, and the shock of it made her go to bed and sleep for days.”

Mrs. Hatherly leans back in her chair and emits a deep sigh of defeat, in turn causing a resurgence of my pity and affection. I think of how she would be a perfect smoker, so very elegant and all. “Lucinda, please let me affirm that I can understand how difficult those years must have been for you. What your grandfather did was unspeakable,” here she shudders inwardly, “and a child should never have to endure such things. But you must face the truth of what happened, and I can’t permit you to hide from it any longer.

"When the officials found you, both your grandparents had been dead for weeks. They had been suffocated by a pillow in their sleep. It was what had been done to them afterwards...” She shudders once more, and I must suppress the urge to smile. Ah, what a precocious child I am sometimes! “They had both been enucleated. Their eyes were removed with a silver serving spoon. You were found in one of your grandmother’s dresses with her cameo round your neck, blankly turning her carousel. You hadn’t eaten for days, your dress was soiled and you were glassy-eyed, practically catatonic. Though when you were admitted here I couldn’t bear the attendants to take away the carousel and cameo from you, they seem to hold some grounding capacity, some significance...” Her gaze falls puzzlingly to my neck, as if the answers to all her problems are etched in the creamy bone enamel of the pendant.

And then, in a tragic flash that I never see coming, her steely blue eyes lock with mine, morphing into hard little sapphire marbles flecked with dizzying spots of red.

“Well, if you will not grant me your cooperation, I guess this means we must go back to the upstairs ward, for a month at least...”

Oh, no, I think, not the upstairs ward. How I worked to get myself out of that place! An old woman who scrubbed the cracked tiles for hours with a dingy tooth brush, for she was convinced they were bloodstained! Not a library in that place, no etiquette books to read, no Emily Post!

But soon serenity overtakes me, and I can successfully drown Dr. Hatherly’s voice from my thoughts. For she does not know what I possess upon my vanity. Yes, I did have a tantrum some years ago, when I was not as docile, as composed as I am now. I had smashed the vanity’s double panes of silvery glass with a flower vase they permitted me to keep in my room. It was one I filled everyday with withered dandelions picked from cracked earthenware pots on the terrace. And they thought they collected all the shards! But I have one, I found it in the corner after those pale-faced maids left: spear-shaped, a small thing, but useful. I taped it to the bottom of the carousel, and there it waits for me.

Oh, the knowledge of it–how it has been my drug, my nameless silent opiate throughout all these years! I have touched it countless times, lovingly, protectingly; it seems to emanate a heartbreaking aroma of sandalwood, spice, and musky death. It has been a balm to my tortured, empty soul; I know that, if I needed it, it would chase away all those memories, all those faceless eyes that haunt, hanging midair within my mind, glowing and grinning like spectral Cheshire cats.

And what Dr. Hatherly does not know further is that I shall put it to good use tonight. And when I do, perhaps I shall invite Gregory to my room for tea. Oh, my sweet Gregory...

No, I do not believe he would withhold the pleasure of a final tea from me–not if I am a good child, and an unselfish one, at that. A kiss goodbye, one last triumphant ride on the carousel, and I might even ask him to hold the shard, so carefully, within his strong fingers... At least while I prepare my lavender-scented wrists.

And then I shall enter into that lonely night that discloses its final passing breeze, filled with memories and golden smiles, and I shall say farewell to those heady days of wine and roses!

(C)opyright 2009 Toni Scales All Rights Reserved

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