Nobody knew the origins of the curse placed upon my family. All that mattered was its presence. Of course, it was scoffed at by generations of wives, until they died. When enough people expire, one starts to believe the word ‘curse’, as though the very points of those letters alone were sharp enough to cleave through a life.
Ours was not the only family to avert its eyes and hush its voices at the very mention of the curse – the affliction was visible to all those around us. The last to bear witness was the doctor who delivered me and pronounced my mother dead.
For generations, my maternal family has failed to produce a male heir. Birth after birth of screaming baby girl was followed immediately by the death of mother. We presented the circle of life in miniature. Every generation of woman in my line has given birth to a daughter and died thereafter. This endless cycle, this shadowy clockwork, is our curse. Some say that we are but one soul borrowed and passed from body to body. Thus it was no surprise to Doctor du Plessis that, following my delivery, as my lungs opened for my first breath, my mother’s deflated with her last.
For generations, our fathers have tried to stop us falling in love – tried to put an end to the exaggerated relay of life and death. For generations, they have failed. Thus begins my own story.
My father’s wails mixed with those of my infant self when he learned of my mother’s fate, through a grim nod from Doctor du Plessis. Like many husbands before him, he never believed her protests and had dismissed her fears. In one instant, glaring at the replacement woman in his life, he learned to believe in curses. The year was 1818.
My father had always been a good man, perhaps a little bullish, but caring. This is what my nurse maid told me, though I held different views of the man. A slow descent into morbidity and a love of drink had intensified his dislike of me. Eventually, at the close of my fifteenth year in 1833, he left me to the care of my governess to seek his fortune abroad in England. “You are killing me, as you did your own mother. However, mine is a prolonged process which I shall prevent.” I later heard talk among the kitchen staff that the cause for my father’s diminishing lifespan was in fact liquor; however, this did not placate my raging guilt.
Before his departure, my father had done his utmost to prevent my spreading the curse; a sickness of which he believed I was the carrier. I was not allowed to leave the house for fear of meeting and dooming a gentleman. However, my reputation and fate were known to many outside our estate; I had not a single possible suitor. As such, he had no reason to fear for another, as they all feared for themselves. All, it seemed, save a man of science.
1834 was undoubtedly the greatest year of my short life. It was a year of tremendous change. Not only was I allowed to live without the oppressive figure of my biological tyrant, but it was the year I fell in love. Most importantly, however, it was the in which things changed in the greater world around me. 1834 saw the abolition of slavery in the country. The celebrations in my own household echoed those around me. It was truly a year of freedom.
Though Dr du Plessis witnessed the embodiment of my affliction during my birth, he did not believe that I suffered from anything as superstitious as a curse. In his mind, ideas of scientific reasoning were harvested, peppering his speech and growing in his writings. His respective beliefs and disbeliefs in science and esoterica were passed down to his son, who followed his father’s footsteps towards medicine. Thus, protected by his white coat and Hippocratic oath, Jacques du Plessis stood apart from his contemporaries. Here was a man who was not afraid of my shadow; he was intrigued by it and drawn to the darkness as a dream to the night sky.
Jacques and I met on my first excursion from the house, following my father’s departure. I was led gently through the dusty avenues of the market by my governess, who feared for my ‘delicate mind’, given my general state of unease, particularly in light of the unrest blossoming around our locale at the foot of the mountain, spreading mushroom-like as a result of the emancipation. Dodging a pair of men in a stewing argument, I began to feel overwhelmed and faint. It was at that moment, feeling panicked and flushed, that I walked right into Jacques as he was stepping out from a store. Fate had literally thrown us together; a collision leaving no us no chance to escape each other.
To say that the man hastily apologising for my own bumbling clumsiness was handsome was a trivialisation. However, his appearance became a secondary aspect of his allure as I later caught glimpses of his soul. From behind a delicate veil of cynicism and stubbornness was a warmth and light so pure, it drew my thought to him in idle moments; an almost instinctive pulling from the centre of my being. At each luscious tug, I chastised myself. Each moment of blissful distraction which my heart afforded me was devolved into torment within my mind.
Nesting in the roots of my happiness was a poison, an invader which reprimanded me and insisted that my goal was unattainable. It was fed by memory, and called itself The Curse. I knew that marriage with Jacques would only lead to ashes; my life would be burned to nothing and the spark would continue to set alight the lives I left behind. The greatest torment lay not in knowing my own wretched fate; it lay in the scepticism and dismissal on the part of my heart’s partner.
I had initially attempted to avoid Jacques and his advances. I forced myself to retreat the existence which my father had intended for me; isolation. Old age. An end to the dark ages of our line. Despite this, Jacques did not desist; neither was he deterred by the truth behind my actions. He refused to accept my reason for the trauma of the women in my family, as only a lover could. Ours was a love so magnetic that not even the scientist within him could deny the pull. He had science to protect him from such a belief, and he tried many a time to pass this shield to me. Only time would tell whose conviction would triumph.
Every day with Jacques became a duel; my happiness warred with the knowledge of what our future would bring. We persevered, and yet it seemed that we tried to live around the curse; ignoring it in the hopes that we could forget it and subsequently avoid it. We refused to acknowledge that we had no control over it and that we were, in fact, afraid. Each life must end, its light snuffed as a candle. Despite the finality of this, there is comfort. Our ignorance of our own finality encourages us to live. Death has perfect timing. Only, Death was cheating during my game of cards. It whispered in my ear at every sight of a child. It brushed the back of my neck to remind me of its proximity. Death visited me at night, for each time I closed my eyes to observe the image of Jacques imprinted behind the lids, I was reminded that he was also my pendulum. His love and my life were directly connected; our lives together would measure of the number of swings of my life’s dial. Back and forth, then back no more.
Though Jacques had eradicated the notion of the curse from his own life, its weight upon my person resulted in his trying – and failing – to lift an anchor and stop my sinking into nothingness. He could no longer avoid the affliction, for he could not avoid my pain. A decision was made; we would wed, though we would never consummate the marriage. The curse would end with me.
The weeks that followed passed in a lace and flower-filled whirlwind. Arrangements were made over many a pot of tea as to guests, meals and dresses. My entire household was alive with a tingling excitement and the ladies working within it went about their days with an unusual happiness, perhaps trying to quieten the niggling concerns over our wedding night and what would follow. Yet as the sun sets on each day, calling forth the darkness that surrounds the moon, so did the light fade from our festivities. The onset of my gloom was heralded by the arrival of my father, with a new bride on his arm.
My father had changed greatly since I last laid eyes upon him. Though he had always been reclusive and quick to anger, he now appeared to have moulded himself into an embodiment of rage. Red skin protruded and hung limply from his bulbous nose and yellowed eyes. His movements were erratic and uncoordinated and he trailed a smell of spirits which followed him like a well-trained dog. Also at his side was his new wife; my antithesis. Dark hair and eyes were held aloft by a tall, bulging frame. She clung to my father whenever they were to together, as though to steady herself. She released him only to sneeze or apply a multitude of embroidered handkerchiefs to her face. Together they were a portrait of ill-health. Regardless of my feelings for my father’s reappearance and the additions he had collected in his new life, I remained content with my own plans and the promise of a long, albeit childless, life.
The morning of my wedding arrived quietly, wrapped in a veil of fog, white as a virgin approaching the altar. While I dressed and my ladies in waiting held back tears, releasing only gasps of joy and laughter, I felt excitement climbing within me. It finally escaped my parted lips as I cried “I do!” next, a kiss, and thereafter I was a wife. It was peculiar to acknowledge that this would be my last title. I would never ascend to ‘mother’.
The wedding feast was incredibly lively. Enthusiastic voices carried above the orchestra, and the merry clinking of glasses and silverware could be heard throughout. Bedecked in white, with a wreath of daisies adorning my hair, I was the happiest bride alive. I was so absorbed in my own happiness that I failed to notice my father’s movements becoming more erratic as his words slurred and fell heavily to the ground. Nor did I notice the frequency with which his wife alternatively coughed or lifted her handkerchiefs.
Once those who had gathered to celebrate with us had dispersed to their respective dwellings and the wind blew lazily at empty seats, so too did Jacques and I make our way indoors, lifted by clouds of happiness. Alone together for the first time, we said our goodnights and retreated to our own chambers. I fell asleep immediately, and for the first time in many months, Death did not visit my dreams. Rather, it visited our home.
A commotion outside my door roused me. My senses regained their composure when the door swung forward to admit a group of frantic women. Their urgent voices shattered my happiness like broken china, and it tinkled to the floor. I learned the horrible truth several moments later, on the arrival of Dr du Plessis, my new father-in-law, confirmed the death of my stepmother. She had died during her sleep of consumption. I pitied her, but more so my father, who had now lost two wives. Jacques, his hand on my shoulder and concern on his face, consulted with his father. It was decided that he, as the new son in our family, should be the one to bring the news to my father, who – despite the upset throughout the house – still slumbered.
My husband described the walk to my father’s room as one of the most difficult of his life. Each step added a measure of discomfort, until he finally reached the door. It took a great effort to wake my father, who lay fully clothed and shod on his bedsheets. After futile attempts at calling and shaking him, a pitcher of water was upended over his head. He woke slowly, and it took several moments before he could be spoken with. I cannot begin to imagine the enormous discomfort with which each man was faced. When the events of the evening had been explained to my father, he sat silently, his mouth agape and eyes bulging far past their usual swell. Then, as though a bolt of lightning had passed through him, he convulsed and let forth a roar or pain so animal that many of the woman in the house cowered; the sound carried as far as the kitchen in the bowels of the building. In the chaos that followed, my father became a barbarian; furniture was thrown from his chamber and linens ripped. Eventually, he took to striking the walls surrounding him and floor beneath him. He had become rage. His fit was subdued only with the assistance of the doctor. For the second time that evening, I witnessed him leaving a room with his mouth set in a firm line, nothing following him but silence. My father had finally fallen asleep.
What began as a day of bliss and ease culminated in the longest night in memory. When dawn finally crept out from behind the mountain and lazily entered our windows, my relief was palpable as having swallowed a sour grape, puckering my face and loosening tears from my eyes. I suspected, correctly, that my father would be the most rested in our house that morning. Indeed, he arrived only after Jacques and I had sat to a tense breakfast. My leaving to live with Jacques would be postponed until after the burial. My father entered looking dishevelled and unkempt. Still wearing the wrinkled suit from our wedding, he looked deflated. He sat down without greeting us, asking the waiter to ring him something stronger for his coffee, to fortify his nerves. He still reeked of alcohol from the night before.
It took near on three days to arrange the funeral. My father spent many hours alone in his room. He would not eat, and refused to bathe. The ladies who were tasked with cleaning his rooms were forcefully expelled on the first morning, and barred from entering thereafter. They complained to me in sullen tones of disgust mingled with apology. However, I was of no assistance. Each attempt to speak to my father resulted in uncomfortable silences during which he regarded me as one does a rabid dog.
My stepmother did not have family in England. As such, there was nobody to inform by telegraph, nor were there any anticipated arrivals. Despite the numerous challenges, the burial was finally settled. My father tidied himself as best as he was able, and allowed one of his valets to bring him a new suit and shave his beard. The weather showed none of our gloominess, the day was a mockery, bright and fresh.
Throughout the ceremony, my father was mute. Gone was the previous animalism and fierce displays of grief. He sat staring at something invisible to others, as though completely unaffected by his surroundings. Curiously, his only movements were snatched glances in my direction. I tried to smile encouragingly, though my heart was leaden and my face felt carved from marble; immobile.
Once the last pile of earth had joined its brethren on the mound above the grave, we began our silent journey home. The atmosphere inside the carriage was oppressive. The only sound was the pounding of the horses’ hooves, counting down the distance to our destination. It was a relief when the carriage swayed and stopped at last. My father went immediately to his rooms upstairs, still in his hat and gloves. I did not have the heart to stop his retreat.
The mood lightened throughout the afternoon. Jacques and I would be leaving for our new home the following morning, and the anticipation swelled inside me, warming my blood and lifting my bowed head. We dined alone, for my father had refused a meal in order to ‘contemplate his plans’ alone with his liquor. We had decided to retire early, given the busy day that lay ahead of us, and were making our way up the stairs wearily. Our plans were thwarted when we reached the landing, by the arrival of my father, stumbling clumsily from his rooms, still in his gloves.
His eyes were roaming and unfocused, yet they managed to meet mine, and his face contorted. His browned teeth were bared as he snarled, “You!” He pointed a limp but shaking finger at me. “This is all your fault! Your mother, and now…” He stopped speaking and sobbed. “The only curse in this family is you!” He lunged towards me then, but was intercepted by Jacques. The two men struggled. “You, sir, are a fool to marry her!” My father roared as he continued to try to reach me. Saliva escaped from the corner of his mouth and his neck stood taut. The staff had emerged to watch the scuffle, horrified and confused. Suddenly, my father lost his balance as he stumbled over his own feet. He reached for the bannister, grasping only air as he misjudged the distance, and tumbled forward, down the stairs. His head bobbed heavily on the surface below, where he lay completely still, no longer struggling.
In the confusion, the police and the doctor had been sent for. It was unfortunate that they arrived simultaneously. Despite my protests, Jacques was arrested for the murder of his own father-in-law. He was taken away that very evening.
The morning was cold and dreary; the clouds heavy and threatening. I stood before Jacques, unable to reach out to him. My heart felt as though it had been removed; in its place was a vast emptiness, black and dead. The sentence was read from a scroll, though I heard nothing. My head was filled with painful silence. My ears blocked what my eyes could not. My husband, once so warm and lively, was now a silent figure, swinging limply from a noose. For the murder of my father, he was executed. As his body stilled, the sky and I wept together, our tears mixing silently on my cheeks.
I write this now, at the turn of the century, in 1899. While I managed to put an end to the curse, the price of my freedom was high. It provides comfort knowing that I finally beat Death at his own game; his hold over my family will end with me. However, my demise and the death of Jacques mean that our story ceases here; our voices will be silenced. I write this to you, in the hopes that our voyage to freedom lives forever in words.
Do not forget us.