Margritte was an undeniably haunted child. Some say it was the death of her mother Véronique, who committed suicide by drowning when Margritte was only 10. One of her earliest memories was of seeing her mother’s body washed up on the shore of Matagorda Island where she lived with her father. They lived in a dreary hotel which purported to house dignitaries and celebrities, but usually gave cover to coarse sailors and foul-scented fishermen with rough hands and rancid mouths of missing teeth. Margritte’s father Réne had been a banker for 13 years before the Great Panic of 1893. He had decided to escape to a place where he couldn’t be touched by the railroads or the crisis that accompanied them. He purchased “La Belle” Hotél for his wife and daughter. It didn’t help matters much that Margritte’s brother Jean-Baptiste had just died of the influenza virus a year earlier at the age of 16, devastating the whole family and her mother most especially.
“La Belle” was originally intended to be a wedding anniversary present; Réne customized every one of its 99 rooms for his wife to her tastes. In addition to guest rooms, he built her a private quarters that included a pink tea room with elaborate velvet embossed and rose-scented wallpaper as well as a bridge room for evenings in anticipation of becoming acquainted with lady friends. Margritte’s favorite part of La Belle was the six-story turret, lined with leaded, colorful stained glass, full bookshelves, window seats, and an ornate wrought-iron spiral staircase. She could read for hours there, with an open window letting in the salty, acrid air of the great Gulf of Mexico, the sounds of screaming seagulls, and the rough waves upon the shore. Sometimes, she would watch her mother tend to the rose garden that she tried in vain to grow. The turret didn’t seem to attract the attention of the hotel guests, who preferred the dankness of the cellar and the echoing stone walls with sprouts of moss. Only Véronique visited the turret to stroke her daughter’s head and wordlessly plant a kiss on top of her head, gaze fixed on the sea beyond.
On the night following the day Véronique’s body was found bloated and floating in the low tide, Margritte had been sent to bed well before sundown. The poor child stood silently with hollowed eyes while a fisherman’s wife helped her out of her play clothing and into her sleeping gown and tried to soothe her to sleep with a large spoonful of laudanum. Margritte choked on the bitter medicine, dripping some on the lace of her collar, and was only lulled into a dreamlike but conscious state. She simply sat on the edge of her bed, her eyes boring into the empty space in front of her. The fisherman’s wife tried to get her under the covers and only succeeded in laying Margritte down stiff-armed and staring into the gauze of the canopy above her head. When it seemed like the child would never close her eyes or respond, despite the woman’s comfort and provocations, she gave up shortly before midnight, shaking her head and sucking her teeth before carefully closing the door behind her.
The light of the moon filled Margritte’s bedroom and she could smell the scent of cigars and pipe smoke wafting from the parlor and then dissipating. The fisherman’s wife had forgotten to pull the heavy canvas drapes hanging alongside the closed windows. The air in her bedroom was stale and settled heavily. Margritte began to feel a slight breeze on her cheek and then in her ear a whisper, “Bonsoir, ma soeur.” She whipped her head toward the windows, giving herself a brain rush, immediately feeling light-headed. She hadn’t realized how long she had laid in her stiff state; the moon had passed its high point and was dipping behind the other side of the house. There was Jean-Baptiste, her brother, smiling devilishly, leaning over her bed with eyes gleaming strangely green in the darkening room. He looked like an overexposed photograph or perhaps it was the moonlight fading the edges of his thin frame.
“Come”, he beckoned with his hand, his smile widening, teeth whiter and straighter than she remembered.
Margritte felt glued to the bed. She couldn’t lift her arms to wipe her eyes that had begun to water and her heart beat within her chest like a loose sail whipping in a strong wind.
Finally, she extracted herself slowly, feeling tiny shocks of pain through her fingertips and from her toes up to her knees. She saw her brother’s figure turn toward the mirrored armoire and fade upon the door. Margritte turned the key, opened the creaking door, and pushed aside her useless winter furs. She felt her way into the darkness, along the smooth lacquered surface, and found a very small knob of rough metal. Upon twisting, her face was coated in a light dust and somewhere she heard her brother’s laughter.
Then she stumbled, almost toppled over one of the seats in her beloved turret. Reaching to catch her were arms, dark and thick, hairier than her brother’s. Margritte gasped, caught her breath in her throat, choking a little on the sharp inhale, while struggling to be released from the grip keeping her from going face first into the floor.
“Don’t worry, dear sister. This is my friend. He’s here to help guide us.” She heard her brother behind this other, darker young man who looked to be about 20 and who only wore an animal skin skirt. The young, clay-colored man nodded silently, let go of Margritte, and began to walk down the spiral staircase. She followed her guides, the metal cold on her bare feet. Suddenly, as if it twisted itself and the color of the stained glass spun into a blur, they were at the bottom of the spiral. Pulling a chain Margritte had never seen before, the dark man opened a trapdoor that revealed stone stairs leading into an uncertain darkness. As they descended, Margritte was surprised to see a young girl, almost a mirror image of her, pause on the steps, look into her eyes, and brush past going up. She heard the trapdoor slam and looked up in alarm toward her brother and companion. They didn’t seem to notice as they headed around a corner and she felt compelled to follow them.
She opened her mouth to scream, but her brother turned around and said sternly, “They won’t hear you. That’s useless now.” She turned toward the stairs but found nothing but a long, gaping hallway. She knew now that she could not turn back and could only go forward.
Second installment to be continued on November 1st…