Content warnings: grief.
The sun was bright. It touched the palm trees swaying in the wind and gilded the crests of the waves rising and breaking against the rocks beneath us. Elena, Paulina and I sat together on the wrought iron bench, Ada across from us.
Everything was as it usually was—except that Ada was dead.
She had been buried only two days before and the patch of earth stretching in front of her gravestone was raw and unlovely, a startling contrast to the stately mausoleums we had sketched while abroad on our Grand Tour.
“Do you remember that day in Paris when I wanted to visit Pere Lachaise?” I asked into the silence. My current profession notwithstanding, I’d always had a fondness for ossuaries and cemeteries. Elena had always indulged my fancy but Ada had at first refused to enter the cemetery.
“She didn’t want anything to follow her home,” Elena said with a little choking sound I knew meant she was stifling another sob behind her embroidered handkerchief.
“I talked her into going inside. All it took was that ridiculous story about finding one’s true love.”
“She didn’t think it was ridiculous,” Elena said softly.
Paulina evidently did, though she was as usual too polite to say so. “It does seem rather a curious place for it,” she said, “having found mine by more conventional means.” The newlywed glow clung too strongly to her cheeks to be dispelled by grief.
I smoothed a thumb over my parasol’s ivory handle. “She was happy that day.”
“She was happy all that month,” Elena said. “Paris caught her fancy.”
“So did Vienna and Madrid.” I stood abruptly, and the hand Elena had been about to place on my arm fell back into her lap. “She had far too much living left to do.”
Elena’s words stayed with me throughout the day. She didn’t want anything to follow her home.
I couldn’t help but wonder, late that night as I stared at the curve of Elena’s body under the bedcovers, if something had.
I couldn’t free myself of the thought even though, by then, I was knew as much about curses, hexes and the things that inhabited cemeteries as Paulina, who had once been my instructor. Had Ada awoken something that lurked in Pere Lachaise, I would have felt it. Had she stumbled upon a curse, or been slipped an ill-wish, I would have sensed its power ensnaring Ada and I would have broken whatever bound her to it. I would have known.
The idea clung to my thoughts as the world around us tried to tug us back into a semblance of normalcy. We all resisted, in our own ways. Paulina cooked so many delicacies, her husband took to drinking Dr. Flores’s stomach tonic in the afternoons instead of coffee. Elena grew silent and lethargic. I sorted the letters that poured in requesting my assistance in matters pertaining to the occult, carefully not opening them.
And Claude… We found him in the courtyard day after day, a cup of coffee and an unread newspaper at his elbow, looking as disheveled as he had the day we put Ada in her grave.
Someone, at any rate, had followed Ada home.
While the others continued to haunt the cemetery by day, I ought to have returned to killing the things that haunted it by night.
She didn’t want anything to follow her home.
It had long since been my habit to burrow into our home’s library during the daytime, so it was not a departure from my usual routine. In the years since we had first moved in together, Elena and I had amassed a remarkable collection of rare books, most of which she’d procured through her job in the San Carlos Public Library. While I got rid of ghouls and broke hexes, she waged war against the tropical humidity that seeped into the pages and made them ripple with damp and mold.
By the end of that first week, I had scoured most of our books and, finding nothing of use, dispatched cables to bookstores in San Carlos and abroad.
“If something did follow her home,” I said as Elena brushed my hair before bed, “it would have had to be some sort of parasite.”
Elena’s hand stilled and I heard a stifled sob. “She was ill, Luz. She must have been for quite a long time.”
“She couldn’t have been,” I said. “She was perfectly fine twenty-seven days ago. She was laughing and traipsing around Paris and talking of traveling through South America. We would have known it, if she’d been ill then.”
“You know as well as I that a fever can turn in a mere moment.”
“But if something were responsible for it—”
“She would still be dead,” Elena said, and her voice was hollow.
Later, when she reached for me under the bedcovers, I turned the other way and pretended to be asleep.
They whispered about me, Elena and Claude. They shared the table in the courtyard now, Elena’s glass of tamarind juice perspiring beside the flowered porcelain cup holding Claude’s cafe con leche. Though they kept their voices low, I could hear them through the open shutters of the library’s sole window.
By now, they had learned not to intrude in my studies. I had snapped at them often enough when they tried, irritated as much by their interruptions as by the fact that Claude seemed to have become a permanent fixture in our home. He slept elsewhere, as propriety, which I’d found to be more flexible than my mother had believed it to be, did not extend so far as to allow an unmarried male to share a roof with two ostensible spinsters. But whenever circumstances—or Paulina—forced me out of the library, I would invariably come across him and Elena, always in the shadows, always whispering, always so close together that I turned my head as I passed them in order to keep from noticing Claude’s hand on her cheek or arm or waist.
Elena rarely came into the library now, and when she did, it was as timidly as if it hadn’t once been our habit to while away the evenings in the armchair by the lamp, legs entwined as we read and fed each other pieces of candied pineapple.
“Today’s the ninth day mass,” she said from the doorway. “Will you not ride with us to church?”
“No,” I said, keeping my gaze on the page so that I wouldn’t see how the cuffs or her black shirtwaist gaped around her slimming wrists. “I don’t mean to go at all.”
“Whatever will everyone say?”
“I don’t care.”
“But her family—”
“Abandoned her once, for all intents and purposes. She isn’t theirs.”
But in her death, Ada was no longer ours either. Her family was claiming her as they hadn’t during her life and, uncharitable though it may have been, their sudden concern for her immortal soul seemed to me like the rankest pretense.
Elena withdrew. And as the priest read the mass and her family wept ostentatiously into their handkerchiefs, I read.
Midnight had long since passed by the time I went to bed. When I slipped under the cotton blanket, I inhaled the warm, sweet scent of Elena’s skin. Then I let out the breath, loud enough to drown out the sound of her voice calling my name.
“I told her she shouldn’t marry Claude.”
We were sitting in the front porch, Paulina, Elena and I, in cane-backed rocking chairs that allowed the breeze to touch our sweat-soaked backs. It was Paulina who had spoken, worrying the gold band circling her finger. “Perhaps if she had—if she’d ignored me and married him despite her misgivings— he might have made her happy. Did I rob her of her last chance at happiness?”
Her eyes brimmed over with tears and regret. Elena went to console her but I remained seated, avoiding looking their way. Wishing I could return to the library.
Ada hadn’t wanted to marry Claude. He’d proposed it on our last day in Paris.
It wasn’t that Ada hadn’t wanted to marry at all, because she had. She’d been starry-eyed at Paulina’s wedding, and more than once I’d caught her looking at Elena and me as we performed some ridiculous act of domesticity and I’d seen the wistfulness cresting over Ada like waves. She’d had her share of beaux, though none had proved suitable, and it was to escape her family’s entreaties to accept one of them that she had asked to join us on our trip abroad.
Unlike Elena and myself, Ada enjoyed the attention of men. She had even kissed a number of them, to her own delight.
Had she been tempted to accept Claude’s proposal because she loved him, or because she’d been worn down by his constant appeals?
I didn’t know. Ada hadn’t known herself. It was the last thing we’d spoken about before she fell ill.
“I wish I could be certain,” she’d told me, in one of those rare moments when she let her loneliness show. The knife-sharp edge of it had scraped over me, though I’d thought myself immune to that sort of pain now that I had Elena. “All I know is I’m tired. Of being alone, of my parents’ questions and their worry.”
She must have felt wretched that day. Her brown skin had been pale, her eyes ringed with circles as dark as bruises, but she had walked steadily enough, and had submitted willingly enough to the kisses and caresses and florid endearments that poured unceasingly from Claude.
“Wouldn’t I know it, if he really were my one true love?” she’d asked me, pulling pins from her hair and lining them with the edge of her vanity. “Wouldn’t I feel it?”
Whose idea had it been, to leave love notes in the crypts at Pere Lachaise?
My eyes ached all the time now.
No matter how many lamps the housekeeper lit, or how I angled the shutters to allow in the light, it was never bright enough for reading comfortably. Books, pamphlets, manuscripts and letters grew dimmer as I strained to make out the words, desperation writhing in my chest. Somewhere in that ocean of text was the answer to Ada’s illness, the cause of her death, just waiting for me to find it if I could only see.
I went to the widow to widen the shutters and saw Paulina in the courtyard, in her husband’s arms. His hands rested right where her corset ended and hers were clasped around his neck, a thumb moving back and forth over the black hair curling over his arrow collar. They didn’t speak, didn’t kiss, but kept their faces close together as if breathing each other’s air.
I felt, rather than heard, Elena’s footsteps behind me.
“I miss you,” she said quietly, and I noticed that she didn’t attempt to touch me.
I wanted to reply, but the words got caught in my throat. So instead, I jerked the shutters closed with a flick of my wrist and turned, brushing past her on my way to the table.
Lines of text swam in front of my eyes as I listened to her walk away, to the thud of the door as she slowly pushed it shut, to the murmur of hers and Claude’s voices in the hall.
That night, in bed, Elena didn’t reach for me.
Feigning sleep until I was certain Elena had left for the cemetery was quickly becoming a habit. Curled on my side under the blanket one morning, I waited for what seemed like hours before I felt Elena stirring.
The downstairs clock struck ten and my eyes snapped open. It had been hours.
I sat up slowly, dreading turning my head, and when I did, I saw what I had tried to avoid for weeks. Elena was ill.
She lay on her back, a sickly pallor turning her brown skin gray, her tightly curled hair matted at her temples. Her breath was labored but audible. It was a harsh sound, born of my nightmares and the nights I had spent beside Ada’s sickbed.
I hadn’t known to look for it before, but I could feel it now. The heaviness in the air, coalescing like humidity before a storm, dense and suffocating and smelling like propriety and french cologne. The shadows gathering in corners, pressing against the lamps. The need and the longing and the starless loneliness that could only be soothed by a caress.
Elena’s eyes opened. She must have seen the deepening horror in my expression because she said, in a rasping voice hardly louder than a breath, “I haven’t gone yet.”
Her wasted fingers twitched atop the blankets, and I understood that she would have liked to clasp my hand. But something in me, the same thing that had been keeping me from looking properly at Elena and seeing as her body was slowly ravaged by illness, recoiled from touching her.
I got out of bed and wrapped a hand around the stiff wood of the bedpost.
“You won’t go at all.”
I called for the doctor. I made poultices. I allowed Paulina to make endless batches of broth and tea, though by afternoon Elena was so far gone, it was futile to dream of her waking long enough to wet her parched lips.
My books went untouched as I banished away the thought at the back of my mind, whispering that I’d missed something.
I had just walked the doctor to the door and was returning to Elena’s bedside when I was arrested at the entrance to the bedroom by the sight of Claude kneeling at Elena’s side, her thin hand clasped between his and his mouth hovering near hers.
It reminded me of Paulina and her husband and the quiet intimacy I had witnessed. There was intimacy in Elena and Claude’s proximity, but it was not that of lovers.
Urgency gripped me and the compulsion to shut myself in the library grew suddenly stronger But I stood in the doorway with my fingers tight on its mahogany frame, immobile.
Mine. It had been my idea to leave the love notes in the crypts of Pere Lachaise. Had it been that same afternoon that we’d met Claude strolling down Champs Elysees? That same evening that Ada had turned to us with shining eyes and lips reddened with kisses, and told us they’d been dancing in Montmartre? Two days later we were on a train to Madrid, then a steamer to San Carlos, and Claude, charming Claude with his broad shoulders and lustrous hair and his lips that curved as he siphoned the life from…
His lips. That sensuous curve, so close to the seam of Elena’s.
The library called me, but I didn’t need it. Just like I didn’t need a doctor or poultices or broth or tea. “I miss you,” Elena had said that day in the library. And then, even lower, “I need you.”
This late in the morning, sunlight ought to have been streaming through the open shutters. It came as far as the windowsill, as if afraid to venture further inside. And yet, I could see.
“Ada didn’t need you,” I said from the doorway. “She wanted the idea of you. A household, pots and pans, shirts to darn and a husband like Pauline’s to stand firm beside her. But you are not like him and wants are not needs.”
I chanted it like a spell, and the bedroom grew a little brighter.
“Elena doesn’t need you. She wants for Ada to still be alive. She wants the acceptance her family denies her, which she has renounced in exchange for me.”
Claude’s eyes darted toward me. The air felt less oppressive and the rasp in Elena’s breath eased a fraction. I breathed easier as well and not only, as Elena would tease me later, because I had been right.
“She doesn’t need you. Because she has me. And she loves me.”
Gently, I turned his face away from Elena’s. Light did trail into the room, but it all coalesced around him, gilding the waves in his hair like it did the ones that rolled over the Caribbean Sea. I traced the edge of a lock and brought my lips to his.
“I don’t need you, either,” I said against him, feeling his essence unravel and curl, like a plume of smoke, into my mouth. “My family are not respectable enough to disapprove of my ways. I have felt the knife-sharp edge of loneliness against the skin of my throat and pressed back against it. I’ve longed for things I thought I was forbidden to want and have been given them all.”
He tasted of comfort, with an undertone of suffocation. “I don’t need you. I don’t want you. I don’t love you.”
I didn’t look to see if he would crack or dissolve, or simply drift away like he’d never been there at all. I watched Elena’s eyes instead, and the warmth gathering in their brown depths.
When she’s strong enough to walk, I help her down to the big armchair in the library. The last book she’d read is on the seat where she’d left it, the shutters open to let in the light and breeze.
As gently as if we are both as fragile as eggshells broken and put together again, we put up our feet and arrange our skirts over the footstool. Pauline and her husband pull up chairs, condensation dripping down their glasses and dotting their fabric-covered knees.
Elena opens the book to reveal the photograph of Ada she had tucked inside. In it, Ada’s smiling, her hair unbound and tumbling over her shoulders in a mass of curls. Loneliness yawns in her dark eyes. In my mind’s eye, I can see her slicing out a page from my sketching book and resting it against a headstone as she composes a message for her one true love.
I touch the back of Elena’s hand and together, we cry.