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Authors: Lisa Mannetti

Deathwatch - Final

BOOK: Deathwatch - Final
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For Dr. Steven Ross
in memoriam
.

You always believed in me.

I'll miss you, my friend.

 

--Last night I heard the deathwatch

ticking in the wall--

 

-Oliver Goldsmith

Dissolution

I
was twenty when I first came to Hyde Park, New York and fell in love with the child who was both woman and ghost. And God help me, it was my infatuation--or obsession--if you prefer, that spawned both her strange shadow life as my bride and--later, much later--her death.

It was December, and the Hudson River was frozen. I hailed from the Carolinas, and after a bleak train ride north, my first, my strongest memory of the region was that solid white mass like a road, of wind blowing and the sight of tight-lipped red faced men hauling blocks of ice on sledges, the horses straining for purchase on the slippery surface.

Their shouts were muffled by the heavy quietfall of snow, even the sound of the train whistling as it left the depot was deadened, and standing on the wooden platform, the chill of the boards penetrating my thin-soled shoes, I thought, I have come to a lonely place. White and cold and deathly still.

Andrew Saunders sent his hired man to meet me. He spotted me right off: I was the only fool not swathed to the eyebrows in heavy wool.

"Mr. Granville." He raised an eyebrow, but there was no question in his tone of voice. He put out a thick-gloved hand. "Gabriel Wickstrom," he said. "The doctor asked me to fetch you."

"I suppose you are an angel--rescuing me in this bitter cold."

He grunted. "You'll get used to it. Carriage is this way." He'd taken the smaller of my two bags, and I followed him down a rickety flight of stairs; his shoulders were covered with a small drift of wet melting snow, and I wondered if he'd waited a long time for me, if perhaps the cold made him so businesslike and terse.

He heaved the bag into the floorspace of a winter-converted two wheel buggy. "There's a footwarmer--if the coals haven't gone out," he advised when I climbed in. He handed me a furry lap robe and I snuggled under it. Gabriel plied the whip lightly, and the horse picked up its pace jogging through the snowy streets.

"Heard the doc got you cheap, because you were sent down, is that so?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, vaguely aware there was a something like a glint of humor in his eye. My parents had sent me to the University of Virginia, but I'd been expelled for drinking. "Yes, they gave me the boot, all right. There's a chance they may re-admit me next fall."

"You'll stay sober enough, likely. The doctor had my Missus--Ruth she's called--clear out every drop in the house. Or as good as. The stuff's locked up tighter than a virgin's cooze in a great big cabinet down cellar. She has the keys."

I nodded.

"A man needs a drink now and then," he said, his dark eyes staring ahead through the swirling snow. "You see me if you get to feeling that way."

"I suppose the doctor will be asked to give an account of me at year's end before the university will take me back." I held my hands up. "I'm good at what I do, you know.

I like surgery. Even if I'm only the children's tutor, it was luck that found me this place. At least I'll be around a doctor, I can read his textbooks, keep up with things--"

"Tutor?"

"Yes, for the girls, Abby and Eleanor."

"I think he has more in mind than that--"

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. Except he only wrote to medical colleges...." Gabriel tucked his chin deep inside his collar. "You know they're twins?"

"Yes. And according to what Dr. Saunders said, they've fallen behind in their studies. Other girls going on twelve speak French and have at least a smattering of Latin—”

He made a sound like a snort.

"What's so funny?"

"Fallen behind. That sounds like they've had any education at all--but he never could keep a teacher more than a month or two at most."

I looked around thinking the place was isolated, but there were good-sized towns. Poughkeepsie was actually a small city, there would be several schools to choose from.

He seemed to read my thoughts. "Never been to school, none hereabouts would have em."

"What! Why not? Two girls couldn't possibly get up to that much mischief."

"Give the other kids the willies--the teachers too. Then the boys and girls go to making fun, and Abby and Eleanor cry--well you can't blame em for that." He turned to me, and it was just that moment that the gaslights were going on here and there--like yellow beacons with haloes in the snow. "You don't know, do you?"

I shook my head.

"Abby and Ellie, they was born stuck together. Siamese Twins, the doctor calls ’em. Like those oriental freaks they sport in a circus."

"Are they...." The question died on my lips, because I had a hundred questions. Where was the jointure? Were they expected to live? Could they walk?

"Their ma's dead," he said abruptly. "Dr. Saunders, maybe he went a little crazy. Grief does strange things to a man. I know. Mrs. Ruth and me, the way we see it, his idea-- it's like Solomon's notion, taking a child and splitting it in two--"

"He means to separate them?"

"He hired you. A surgeon, like you said," he leaned out. "Good with your hands," he finished; then spit over the side. "Ho, Bessie," he soothed, reining the horse. "No more palaver now, we're here."

The house, a large rambling mass as tall and white as an iceberg, loomed out at me across a long spread of snow-covered lawn, and I felt my stomach clench. My hands, under the warm blanket, twitched, and I was suddenly cold.

 

***

"Fly Abby, let's fly!"

Gabriel Wickstrom and I had entered a dimly lit large slate-floored hallway, stamping our feet free of snow; above our heads in what I guessed was the twin of the space we were standing in, I head the clattering sound of metal wheels rolling on wooden planks, the high pitched squeal of giggling glee.

"Fly, Fly!"

"It's the girls," Gabriel said, his eyes flicking up toward the white plastered ceiling. There was a soft bumping noise; the hollow echoing ratchet of the wheels turning round and round like a cheap carnival ride. "A kind of jerry-rigged contraption," he said. "A toy sheep. I made it myself--children got to run, best they can--"

The sound of two doors opening cut him off. From the upper one came a woman's sharp voice, telling the girls to leave off their play and go down to meet their new teacher. From the lower one--a large paneled mahogany slab that led to what looked like the library--a tall stiff man in a black cutaway coat emerged, clearing his throat. Dr. Saunders had a pair of gray eyes he kept averted from mine. When he shook my hand and introduced himself, I caught the sharp musk of sherry on his breath.

"Ah, my daughters." He turned abruptly.

At the far end of the dreary entryway, I saw a small gated niche I'd overlooked. From its rising throat I heard the screak of hemp ropes, the drop-and-settle-drop-and-settle of a wooden platform moving through metal channels.

"Elevator," Gabriel hissed, scuttling quickly to throw back the gate and seize a pair of ropes. "Harder to manage from above with the weight," he said, peering up inside the darkened recess. "Got, em Ruth," he called. Whatever she said was lost in the thump-slide of the cage moving down the shaft.

The platform bumped to floor level. Gabriel wound, then knotted the ropes around a heavy cleat set into the wall. He opened the metal door of the cage.

And I had my first glimpse of the twins.

They stood, smiling, their arms locked around each other's waists. They looked for all the world like any two young girls sharing a moment of sweet embrace. Except, my eyes had grown used to the dim gas light, and now I picked out the startling details: the single-bodiced frock with its lumps and swatches of fabric that could not be sewn smooth, the drift of green velvet skirt below as wide as the cloth for a pasha's table.

They began limp-walking toward me like children hobbling in a three-legged race at a summer picnic. But there was no giggling at the awkwardness, no shrieks of laughter. They moved slowly, somberly, and I understood at once--the old pictures from my medical texts flashing up at me--the jointure was at the hip.

- 2 -

 

 

 

D
inner was a nightmare. Andrew Saunders got drunk; I was not even offered a sip. In between courses in the drafty dining room the girls stared at me--harder, I'm sure, than anyone might ever have had nerve enough to stare at them.  Ruth and Gabriel served--they were obviously unused to company; they twittered and fussed, never doing anything that was to the doctor's satisfaction.

"The roast's cold. Where's the soufflé I ordered?"

Ruth, a tall woman, stood by the side board wringing a pair of outsized hands, her eyes nervously darting over the room.

"Sorry, Doctor. You were so long with the first course, I wasn't sure of the timing. It's the wind tonight, blowing right through the windows of the pantry--"

He grunted, standing over the beef, the carving knife and fork trembling in his hands. He had just used his fingers to tweeze a large slab of meat onto the serving platter. No one commented. I looked away.

She went on. "I kept it covered with the silver dome, the wind has a way of going right through these old walls on a winter night." She began to go around the table with a bowl of new potatoes, holding the china at the shoulder level for each of us in turn.

I watched Abby and Ellie. They were seated on a raised bench like a piano stool. Ellie forked potatoes efficiently onto her plate; Abby was forced to use her left hand and she was not so dexterous. A buttered round skidded onto the polished surface.

Ruth retrieved it quickly, wiped the table with her apron hem, and covered the girl's embarrassment: "The soufflé is still in the oven, Sir."

"Well see that it's served hot. What are you two staring at?" He flung his napkin down.

"Nothing," Ellie said.

Abby flicked her gaze toward her father. He was pre-occupied, pouring what must have been his sixth or seventh glass of wine. He drained it, poured another; then he lowered his grizzled head like some blind old ox foraging in its manger and began to eat.

"We don't see many people," Abby said quietly, looking into my eyes. Her hair--like her sister's--was sheened red and glossy in the lamplight. It was done in a puff of ringlets, and I spotted more of Ruth's handiwork.

"Some from the nursery window," Ellie added. "The butcher's boy. Abby has a crush on
him
," she giggled.

"Quiet. Mr. Granville doesn't want to hear your truck and nonsense," Abby said. "We heard you're a doctor, we're most anxious to have our surgery done," she said.

That remark, spoken in a very low voice, roused the doctor.

"Get out, get out the pair of you! Sneaking spies, always lurking about, listening, watching. I said out! Get out this minute."

Ellie turned white, but Abby whispered at me. "Excuse us. It's the drink you know. Ever since mother--"

"Ruth," he yelled, "get these vixens out of the dining room--"

She hurried in, helping them off the bench, lending her arm for support, then steering them toward the door. I heard it shut abruptly, and then through the adjoining wall, the rattle of the metal cage, the squeak-rub of the ropes being hoisted, the platform groaning its way toward the second floor.

"Poor things," I said.

"Yes. We're all of us poor things in this house. They say that God helps those who help themselves. But I've been crushed by my own life. First them, the damnable freak birth, the years of watching them grow twisted and maimed while idiots' children run like jackrabbits. And then my wife, the only human being I ever loved. She killed herself, you know."

 In the silence that followed, the doctor fixed his gray eyes on me, and I saw they'd gone silver cloudy, not just with drink, but from bone-deep cynicism. The man was in pain. Half-startled, I pushed away from the table, Abby's words ringing in my mind: It's the drink. Ever since mother died, he drinks to shut us out, to shut himself down.

She was a month shy of twelve years old, and she had just taught me my first lesson.

- 3 -

 

 

 

"
I
t's snowing." Abby's voice held a note of joyous expectation. She clapped her hands. "It's the perfect birthday gift!"

It was just past dawn on the morning of February 12. The girls stood, their backs to me, peering out the high, wide mullioned window of the nursery.

"Aren't you scared, Abby?" Ellie squeezed her sister's hand.

"No, and no! It's freedom, Ellie!" She started the first steps of a pirouette, pulling her sister with her. Her white nightdress fanned and rose in a circle.

I had risen early--with just as much anticipation--and now I rapped my knuckles against the wooden jamb of the open nursery door. They turned toward me, I saw the color rising in their young faces, and something turned inside me.

BOOK: Deathwatch - Final
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