No moonlight penetrates the thick damask curtains drawn over the casement windows, my beeswax taper providing the only light for me to see by. The book is heavy and solid in my hands, the soft tan-colored suede fuzzy against my palms as I gaze into the diamond-shaped mirror set deep into its cover. The mirror catches the candlelight and reflects a flash against the red-orange walls of the parlor. The musty smell of the book—a mixture of camphor and mothballs—permeates my nostrils. At that moment, my hand on the clasp, I hear heels tapping on the hardwood floor, the footfalls growing louder as the intruder draws nearer. I brush my hand against the corner, protected by a delicate metalwork overlay, and the footsteps cease abruptly. I gasp sharply, not wanting to look behind me, my heart thudding somewhere in my throat. Just as suddenly, the footsteps start up again, heels clip-clopping like the hooves of my father’s horse on the cobbled drive as it brought me here—to Grimmare Hall…
* * * * *
“Would you like a cup of tea? I am afraid my tale is quite a long one and you look so weary after your long journey. I trust the automobile drive here was not too difficult,” I say, my liver-spotted hands hovering over the cover of the elegant silver teapot—the kind from a begotten era, the kind they no longer make.
“Thank you, Aunt,” my great-niece, Patricia, responds, as I pour and prepare two cups of strong tea. She wordlessly takes the delicate china cup from me and swirls the cream to the surface, as uncomfortable now as she was at five, when we met for the first and only time at the funeral of my late husband. Tonight, languishing before me in a pair of tight-fitting blue jeans and a loose, off-white, peasant blouse, she is a half-grown woman of sixteen—the exact same age I was in that fateful year of 1914, a little more than fifty years ago.
“The roads here can be quite treacherous and that rain shows no sign of letting up,” I continue, handing her a Scottish shortbread. “I shall turn down one of the beds in the upstairs bedrooms for you—it is of no trouble. You cannot possibly be thinking of going back out in that storm. You must stay here until the rain stops. Be careful, that tea is still hot. I hope it is satisfactory—it has extra milk and two lumps of sugar…”
“It’s fine, Aunt.” Patricia tucks her hair behind her ear and takes a sip of her tea. “Thank you. Please continue. Your story is fascinating.” I cannot tell from her tone if she is genuine or is simply being polite and wants to pass the hours before she can continue on her journey to New York City, where she will say her farewells to a young man about to be deployed to Vietnam. I glance around the room, listening to the fire crackle and the icy sleet pattering against the window, and remember a similar young man I once had in my life.
Glancing at Patricia, I notice that she is not looking at me, but is staring into the flames, her long yellow hair—the pale color mine once was—falling on either side of her face, concealing her expression. I decide she is more polite than interested and choose to continue my tale nonetheless. It is a story that she needs to hear and will, God willing, provide her comfort in the long nights she has ahead of her. “All right then, I shall. I do hope you are warm enough. If not, then I can put another log on the fire. Make yourself comfortable for this story is one of my longer ones and I am not in the practice of telling them.”
“That’s fine, Aunt. Take all the time you need to. I’m in no hurry.” Patricia takes a bite out of her shortbread and swings sideways in the armchair, hooking her knees over the armrest, facing me.
I smile to myself, smoothing the quilt across my lap. “I was fourteen when I was first sent to Grimmare Hall to work for an old spinster named Miss Caldwell—she was quite a bit younger than I am now, but she seemed so much older to my child’s perspective.
“Grimmare Hall was the stuff of ghost stories and nightmares. It was an old, decaying cottage—in the sense that only the very wealthy would use, but much smaller and cozier than the grand houses down in Newport—at the end of a twisting, washed-out cobblestone drive. It must have been grand at one time with two floors and a turret. But, by the time of my employment in the early 1910s, it had passed its prime. There was a wrought-iron fence and two ferocious gargoyles, their faces contorted into snarls, guarding the entrance. I could never figure out if they were there to frighten people away or to keep people from leaving. Nonetheless, when I climbed up the steep incline of the drive, I remember thinking that if someone had the need for such terrifying sculptures, they must be very lonely, indeed. At fourteen, I thought Grimmare Hall was a delicious name—one that suited the place and sent chills up and down my spine.
“I had been sent to work at Grimmare Hall to help my family earn enough money to survive. The farm was no longer producing enough food to eat and to sell—there had been a few years of bad crops—and my older brother had taken ill and could no longer work. Of course, almost everyone had fallen upon hard times, but it seemed then that no one was worse off than we were.
“To this day, I wonder how my mother found Grimmare Hall and procured me a position there. I am sure if she knew everything that would transpire behind those oak doors with the silver gargoyle knocker, she would not have sent her only daughter to work there.”
* * * * *
The footsteps are no longer audible—I exhale quietly, my breath making the flame of the taper dance. I touch the intricate whorls of the protective corner that is, at once, practical and decorative; hammered-silver overlapping the entire corner with simple, elegant scrollwork, and lean forward to see my reflection more clearly. My pinched, pale face, sallow skin the color of whey and colorless, gray eyes—far too large and wide-set for such a narrow countenance—stares back at me, warping in the candlelight. Supporting the book by its binding with one hand, I fiddle with the large clasp, constructed by a curved metal hook locking the book closed with the other. I struggle with the lock for a moment, and the book remained as tightly shut as the steel jaws of my brother’s leghold traps when sprung. I stare at the lock, trying to figure out how to undo the catch when I notice for the first time, a tiny latch tucked beneath a fold of suede. I catch the fastener with my fingernail and tug it gently towards me. The well-greased lock did not make a sound and the hook pulls down. The padlock undone, I open the front cover to the very first page, careful not to disturb it in any way. As the book falls open in my hands, I remember the conversation I had with Miss Caldwell on my first day of employment at Grimmare Hall two years before…
“Your duties in this room are to dust and tidy everything,” Miss Caldwell—white-haired, withered, and looking older than the fifty-odd years I guessed her to be—directed as we stepped into the parlor. “You do not need to worry about the fire—Brighton Gray will take care of it.” She crossed the room to a four-foot tall bookcase, fronted with glass. “You may, from time to time, dust the front of the shelves, around the books. But, you must never, ever touch that book,” she whispered in my ear, as she pointed to a thick, tan book between a red-Moroccan leather and a dark blue one.
“I can tell you are a very smart girl—perhaps a bit too clever for your own good, I fear,” Miss Caldwell continued. “This job is a simple one, Agatha; keep the house clean and tidy, stay out of trouble—no cavorting around the countryside half dressed, associating yourself with common boys, that sort of thing, and do not touch this book ever.” She replaced the book and shut the glass front to the bookcase before placing her hands on my shoulders and forcibly turned me around to face her. “If I ever catch so much as a fingerprint on it, I will fire you immediately and without question. Do you understand?”
I nodded, tears burning behind my eyes. I hadn’t even officially begun my first post and already I had been threatened. “I understand,” I whispered. “I promise I won’t ever touch the book, Miss Caldwell.” I fought to keep my voice steady.
Miss Caldwell’s voice grew gentle. “I trust you, Agatha. I consider myself a good judge of character and you came highly recommended. I believe you and I will get along capitally and we shall have no trouble.”
I know that I should shut the book immediately and lock it exactly as it was before and return to my bed where I belong, but I had gone past the point of turning back when I unlocked the book. No, I had passed the point of no return when I saw Miss Caldwell reading it nearly three months before.
I lower the book closer to my candle and feel a hand close on my shoulder.
“Put the Book of Secrets down,” a female voice says directly next to my ear.
I swallow forcibly and turn slowly to face my adversary, my heart pounding hard and fast within my chest. I exhale with relief when I see it is Mrs. Gray, the head housekeeper, and not Miss Caldwell. I drop my eyes in embarrassment and notice she is standing in stocking feet, holding her boots in one hand and a candlestick in the other. I can feel the heat of a blush burning up my neck between my lank braids.
“Agatha,” Mrs. Gray’s voice is gentle but firm. “Do you remember the terms you agreed to when you first began working here?”
I nod, too frightened to speak.
“And you remember Miss Caldwell’s only explicit command was not to touch this book?”
I nod again.
“Why did you touch it?” At her words, I finally meet Mrs. Gray’s level stare. Her expression in the candlelight is one of disappointment, not anger, and, for some reason, that makes me feel worse.
“I don’t know,” I whisper croakily. “I saw Miss Caldwell chanting while reading it one day.” And I suddenly see it in my mind’s eye:
The curtains flapped and swirled on either side of the open window in the November wind. I stepped over the threshold, sensing that something was wrong—the curtains were never open at night. As my eyes adjusted to the half-light of the harvest moon, I saw Miss Caldwell’s emaciated form lean closer to her book, holding down her page with a twisted forefinger as it flapped and threatened to turn in the gust. The room was at least ten degrees colder than the rest of the house. I opened my mouth to tell Miss Caldwell to shut the window or else she would catch a chill, but before words could exit my mouth, Miss Caldwell raised her hands and cried a series of guttural sounds that did not sound English. The wind picked up and howled through the room. Miss Caldwell dropped her hands and cranked the casement shut, her face wet with tears, her thin, bony shoulders shaking with sobs. As she drew the curtains shut, I backed away from the doorway and fled before she could see me…
“What Miss Caldwell does is her own business—not yours,” Mrs. Gray interrupts my thoughts. “You are much better keeping your nose out of other people’s business. Do not pry into what you do not know, and, between you and me, it would be better if you stayed far away from it. You have done well the past two years, Agatha—you are one of the best I’ve ever had under my charge. Now, seeing that it’s past midnight and it’s your first offense, I will not say anything to Miss Caldwell. If she asks, you were sleepwalking.” Mrs. Gray steps towards me, places her boots neatly on the floral-printed carpet, and takes the Book of Secrets from me. She deftly locks it, running her hands across the furred leather, obliterating all traces that I had been there, and slides it in its place on the shelf. “Now, go to bed, Agatha. I will see you in the morning,” she says as she closes the glass door.
I take my candlestick and cross the room. At the doorway, my hand on the railing of the main stairwell, I turn back to Mrs. Gray, whose voluminous form is hunched over her feet, her hands busy lacing her boots. “Thank you, Mrs. Gray,” I say.
She pauses, bootlaces still held tautly in hand, and looks up at me, her eyes narrowed. “Tonight did not happen. I don’t want to hear another word of it. It will not happen again.”
“Yes Ma’am.” I ascend the stairwell to my bedroom.
In the morning, as I perform my duty of preparing the parlor for potential guests Miss Caldwell might entertain that day, my attention kept returning to the bookcase. The watery, pale sunshine of a Connecticut winter reflected off the bookcase, turning the glass into an opaque wall of mercury. Although I know Mrs. Gray had replaced the book exactly as it was before, with nothing out of place, there seems to be a sign of disturbance, visible only to my guilty eyes.
I continue dusting the waxed surfaces until even the invisible dust particles are removed from the wood, trying to ignore the Book of Secrets. Despite my efforts, I can feel the nonexistent eyes of the books boring into the space between my shoulder blades, following me as I replace the soiled lace doilies on the arms of the chintz sofa and matching armchair with fresh ones. I rearrange the chair before the imported, rose-marble fireplace so its back is to the bookcase. Surveying the room, I lick my dry lips and twist my dustrag in my hands, cutting off the blood flow to my fingers. With no one in the room, I cautiously approach the bookcase. Somehow, in the daylight, the book seems less innocuous than it had during the night. Now, in the garish, gray light of winter, it appears more sinister than it had by the warm candlelight—speaking of some ancient power that the world had long since forgotten.
Stop it, Agatha, I scold myself. Don’t you start imagining things. Miss Caldwell is perfectly normal. This room is a room, the bookcase is a bookcase, and that is just a book—it is a stack of papers with words on it. It doesn’t have any power; it can’t hurt anyone—it is an object.
The door slams behind me, making me jump. I whirl around, extending my dustcloth before me like a rapier—or, at best, a limp flag of truce.
“It’s only me, Ag,” a masculine voice emerges from behind a pile of logs. I can just make out the shock of vivid orange hair above the topmost log.
“Hey, Bright,” I lower my hand and grin broadly, crouching besides him as he sets down his load and piles the wood onto the clean grate for a fire.
Seventeen-year-old Brighton Gray glances up from his chore, phosphate matches in hand, his blue eyes darkening, his freckled face serious. “Still obsessing over that book?” He jerks his chin towards the book behind me. He faces me and places a hand over mine. “I’m telling you, Ag, don’t meddle with what is not yours. That Book’s no good. Stay away from it.”
“Your mother told me that last night,” I whisper, glancing away and ease my hand from his. I wring nonexistent moisture from the rag again.
“Listen to her, at least.” Bright says as he strikes the match against the side of the fireplace, igniting it. He holds the flame to the kindling, which catches instantly, and sits back on his heels. “Mom’s been working here longer than our ages combined.… She knows more about this place than either of us could possibly hope to know,” he says as he rubs his nose, leaving behind a dark smudge. The fire now blazing warmly in the hearth, Bright rises to his feet, wipes his sooty hands on his broadcloth pants, and extends a hand to me, pulling me up. “Promise me,” he drops his voice several octaves and leans closer to my ear, gripping my wrist harder. “Promise me you’ll stay away from that Book, Ag, it’s evil. It’s the book of the devil.” He abruptly releases my wrist and touches my face. His eyes grow soft and he leans in for a kiss. I return the kiss, wrapping my arms around his waist. I want him so badly; it hurts to admit it. His hands move down my back as we move closer together.
“Bright…” I whisper as I disengage my lips for a moment. “We... What if we…”
He pulls away too soon for my liking. “Meet me tonight…” Bright whispers, giving me one last, longing glance and I grin back at him. Alone again, I sigh, gathering my cleaning supplies and the soiled doilies, and exit the room into the adjoining kitchen, Bright’s words echoing in my head.
I did not have much time to dwell on the Book of Secrets for Mrs. Gray immediately set me to work cleaning the rest of the house for a gathering Miss Caldwell was holding later that evening. It was late by the time I finished my chores and returned to my room.
Although I was physically exhausted, my mind was not. Changing out of my blue wool dress—the uniform of Grimmare Hall—and placing it on a hook on the back of my door for the next day’s use, I could hear the clatter of conversation bubbling up the main stairwell, its landing located directly across from my door. Without taking off my boots and stockings, I tug on my flannel nightgown—the close-fitting gown with the lace trim at the throat and edged with bright red thread, the one my mother had given me just prior to my employment at Grimmare Hall, the one that still smelled faintly of cedar and cinnamon, of home. Pulling my bright red cloak from my closet, I wrap it around my shoulders, clasping it at my throat.
No one is in the kitchen when I reach the foot of the servant stairwell. I glance at the door that leads into the parlor, and, seeing there is no one approaching, I slip into the cold night.
Bright is waiting outside, as I knew he would be. No one is around—they had all either went home or turned in early—and the frosty, overcast day was now a frigid, inky night. Looking into the sky, my breath frosting, I realize that even if the drapes had been pulled back the previous night, there still would be no light for me to see the book by—there is no moon.
“Hey, Ag,” Bright’s breath billows out before him in a dense cloud of mist. “Happy sixteenth birthday,” he says as I remember with a start that today is February Ninth. My sixteenth birthday. I had forgotten. “Come on,” Bright tugs at my hand, urging me. I grin at him, beginning to feel cold. My hand still in his, I follow Bright across the half-acre of field, now dead and cold beneath two feet of old snow. We slip and slide on the iced-over surface of the gray snow unbroken by our shadows until we reach the barn where the horses are kept. Releasing my hand, Bright pushes the door open and I step into the barn as he shuts the door behind me.
Inside, the barn is warm and steamy from the bodies of the six horses, each in their own stall, a pleasant welcome to the raw coldness outside. I stamp my feet, shaking snowy clumps from the hem of my nightgown and tops of my boots, as I rub my reddened, chapped hands together, warming them. In an empty stall, Bright lights an ancient oil lantern on a barrel. The flame is brighter than I expect it to be with a vibrant blue heart at its center—the identical shade of Bright’s eyes. Bright faces me and pushes back my hood from my face, drawing me close to him. He is warm, a core of heat. He places a hand that feels like a firebrand on my left cheek and pulls me closer to him as he lowers his face towards mine and kisses me full on the lips.
I am instantly removed from everything—my family, not twenty miles away, who depends on my income, my home, my precarious position at Grimmare Hall, and even Miss Caldwell and her demonic Book of Secrets. All there is in this moment is Bright and nothing else matters. I reach up with my arms, wrapping them around Bright’s broad, knotty shoulders and kiss him back, wanting more—not even sure of what I want—and longing so hard it scares me. I feel the pressure of his soft lips on mine, the hard lines of his body pressed against my ribs and hips.
As I tilt my head upwards to drink more of him in, he abruptly pulls away from me, breathing in raggedy gasps, breaking contact. His mouth is red and puffy. His face contorts into a mixture of intense longing and pain. He gazes at me desperately, his hand fumbling at his pants.
I stare at him, my heart hammering as though the woodpecker caught in my chest is trying to peck itself free. My mouth is still tingling from the force of his kiss. “Bright,” my voice is faint and breathless, even to my own ears. “What’s wrong?” I manage to squeak, my eyes filling with tears, turning my world watery. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Ag,” he says hoarsely. “Nothing you could do would be wrong tonight. God,” the word rips out of his chest in a deep groan as he looks heavenward. “I love you. I want all of you. Ever since you came to work here two years ago, I’ve loved you.”
“I want you, too, Bright.” I whisper, wiping my sweaty palms against my cloak.
“Are you sure?” Bright asks, his brow furrowed. “You’re not just saying that because I said it first?”
I shake my head negatively and exhale tremulously, feeling a smile spreading across my face. “No, Bright. I want you.” I step closer to him, untying the ribbon at my throat and letting my cloak fall from my shoulders, revealing my form-fitting nightgown. Almost unconsciously, I push Bright’s coat from his shoulders and begin to undo the buttons of his shirt, my fingers brushing his bare chest as I work my way downward.
“Ag,” he moans throatily. “Stop, please. I don’t know how much more I can take. I feel like I’m about to burst.”
I glance down and realize that his pants are rising between his legs. “Bright,” I say, suddenly alarmed. “Are you ill? You’re swelling…”
“Am I ill?” he asks incredulously as he opens his eyes and lets out a rough bark of a laugh. “Oh, God. Far from it. I haven’t felt so great. This is what you do to me… This is supposed to happen.”
I jerk back a step, pulling my hand away from his chest, mortified, as he laughs, my eyes still glued to the straining between his legs.
“It’s all right, Ag,” Bright whispers as he closes the gap between us, with his shirt half-undone and his bare chest glistening with sweat. With the utmost care, he pulls my nightgown over my head and drops it on the ground besides him. I am now clad only in my camisole and drawers. Sweat runs down the length of my back and I tremble.
“Don’t be nervous,” he croons to me in the same tone he would use to comfort an injured or angry horse. “It’s okay.” He slides the buttons of my camisole through the buttonholes, and I slowly resume unbuttoning his shirt.
We stand facing each other, naked and shivering as though we were the first humans to walk the earth, and I get a full glimpse of his erection. It is bigger than I expected. I swallow, suppressing my uncertainty, and press my body against his and wrap my arms around his torso. He gently eases me onto a mound of hay that had been covered with a horse blanket, lying down on top of me. A horse whinnies softly, and then the barn is quiet again except for the sound of our breathing. The straw gives beneath us, supporting our weight and I adjust myself underneath him. I do not remove my arms from around his shoulders as he whispers my name over and over again in my ear, while caressing my breasts.
“Bright?” I am delirious. I can feel my body becoming harder and rising to his and I do not know how much more I can take before I must become one with him.
He pushes himself up with his hands, his face hovering over mine and he looks exactly the way I feel—flushed and feverish. “Yes, Ag,”
“You nervous?” I slur, intoxicated with arousal.
“A little,” Bright admits. “You?”
I nod, my gaze not wavering from his. “But I want to do this; I love you, Brighton Gray.”
Still holding himself up with one hand, he raises the other and strokes me between my breasts trailing his hand down to my pelvis, making me keen, while I drag my fingers in the same movement on his body. I spread my legs and raise my hips and, all at once, in one swift, uncomfortable moment, we are together, and I reach heights I had never known before.
I come back to myself when I hear Bright groan—as though he is in intense pain—and feel a tearing separation that leaves me feeling empty. I roll to my side and find Bright lying on his back, panting for air, his eyes squeezed shut. “Are you all right?” I ask, placing my hand on his heaving chest. His heartbeat is fast and shallow.
He covers my hand with his and opens his eyes as he turns his face towards me. “For a minute I thought I wouldn’t be able to pull out in time…” his face splits into a tired grin. “But don’t worry, Ag. I got it out.”
I pull myself up and see a dark stain—blood—on the blanket beneath me, but I am only mildly surprised: I am still under the opiate of the night’s events. I edge closer to Bright and lift his head so it rests on my chest, wrapping my sweaty arms around him. “Thank you for the best sixteenth birthday ever.” I lower my face and kiss him.
It is late—stars are slowly vanishing from the sky—and I am alone in the second empty stall. Bright is in the next stall, turning over the hay, to hide our evidence. I squat low over the ground and stare at the douche bag Bright had stolen from his mother’s closet. It is filled with water and vinegar. I do not want to do this, but know I must if I am to maintain my employment. I close my eyes as I insert the syringe inside of me and empty it. There is a dull burn and blood washes out, the dirt floor absorbing it instantly. As I redress, I feel purged and smile with the knowledge we are safe, and there will be no permanent effect from this night.
Six weeks, I count on my fingers. I am sitting on the pristine porcelain toilet, my knees touching the door of the Water Closet, staring at my clean, snow-white drawers in disbelief. I should have begun by now. I count on my fingers again, sure that I had made an error. But I still come up with six. It has been nearly six weeks since the night in the barn with Bright and I am two and a half weeks late. I have never been this late for my menses. Oh, God, I plead silently. Please don’t let me be pregnant. My stomach twists and I suddenly feel sick with dread as I slowly pull my undergarments back on. I pull the brass chain that releases the water and wastes from the bowl and know if anyone discovers my state, my life at Grimmare Hall is over. And there will be no hope for future employment. I compose myself as I step out of the Water Closet and into the hallway. Bright is there, his face and hands soot-stained from cleaning the fireplaces.
“Hey, Ag,” he greets me with a grin, leaning in for a kiss.
I turn my head away before he makes contact. “I think I’m…” I whisper to my boots, my hand unconsciously going to my flat stomach.
“What?” Disbelief tinges Bright’s voice as he glances up and down the corridor to make sure that we are alone and pulls me into a doorway. “What do you mean? We took precautions…”
“I know,” I sob, searching his face. “I guess they didn’t work. I’m late…” Tears begin to flood my eyes. “I’m scared, Brighton. I can’t have a baby.”
“Shhh. Don’t cry, Ag. Don’t worry, it will be all right.” Bright reaches out and smears my tears away. “I promise,” he reassures. “We’ll figure out something.”
“But I can’t… I need to stay here. My family’s depending on me.”
“Trust me. It’ll be all right,” Bright tilts my chin upwards and kisses me gently. “We’ll fix it, Ag. Don’t worry. But, we’d both go back to our duties so we don’t get in trouble.” Bright squeezes my hand reassuringly. “It’ll work out,” he whispers into my hair, pressing his lips against my forehead before leaving. “I love you, Ag.”
Later that day, Mrs. Gray corners me in the kitchen. “I know what you’ve done, Agatha, and all I have to say is you’ve better stay away from Brighton if you know what is good for you. I will not have my son involved with a harlot. Now, you have two choices—you can quit with your reputation intact and leave this place forever; never to be seen or heard on these grounds again, or you can do as I tell you and stay here.”
I think of my family and how desperately they need my income with my brother still recovering from his illness. I cannot quit and return home with another mouth to feed. It would destroy them. My mind turns to the prospect of leaving Bright forever. My chest constricts around my heart. I cannot leave Bright. Not after my sixteenth birthday. Tears begin to run down my face. The first choice presented by Mrs. Gray is not an option. I look at her and realize she knows this already. “Tell me what I must do,” I whisper.
Mrs. Gray crosses the kitchen and reaches into a cabinet for a glass. She fills the tumbler with water and sets it on the table before me. Standing before me, she withdraws a paper packet from her apron pocket and removes three, round, whitish pills before replacing the paper in the recesses of her pocket. “Ergot pills,” she says bluntly, answering my unasked question as she hands the pills to me. “They will help….” Her eyes flicker to my stomach. “But don’t tell anyone. You do realize that you are breaking the laws of Connecticut for attempting to…” Again, she glances at my abdomen. “And I am, as well, for supplying you with the means. But desperate times calls for desperate measures.”
I do not say anything as I stare at the three pills in my hand, her words about violating the laws barely registering. After a moment of hesitation, I swallow them down.
Mrs. Gray glances at me sympathetically as she takes away the empty glass. “You made the right decision, Agatha.”
That night, still in my work dress, I lay wide-awake on top of the covers, listening to the settling of the house, my hands rubbing tight, concentric circles on my flat stomach. With each downward motion, I press the heels of my palms hard against my pelvis, hard enough, it feels, to leave bruises, as though they could push out the growing seed. Please don’t let me be pregnant, I plead silently, waiting for the ergot pills to work. It has been hours and I still have not felt any effects. I don’t know what I will tell my family if I am discovered ridding myself of child—or if I am still with child, if the pills don’t work, I think desperately.
Soon, a dull pressure spreads throughout my pelvis and I have the sudden urge to use the bathroom. I rise from my bed and by the time I reach the hallway, I know I am ill—sicker than I had ever been before in my life. The main stairwell is much closer than the servant one, which is at the opposite end of the hallway. With both feet on the topmost step, I cling to the banister, dizzy with vertigo as I realize how far the bottom is and how many steps there are. I sink to the step and shimmy down the stairs, feet first, planting my bottom on each step like a small child. I finally make it to the foot of the stair and use the newel post to heave myself to my feet. I grip the post for a minute, caught in a moment of indecision. As much as I feel the need to relieve myself, I am inexorably drawn to the Book of Secrets in the parlor bookcase. Perhaps there is something in that text, something written on those too-thick pages that will help me now, in my hour of need. Had I not seen Miss Caldwell reading it, as though casting a spell? If God will not help me in this moment, then perhaps the devil will. The devil will ease my pain.
I shuffle towards the parlor, hunching over as the pressure in my pelvis sharpens into a cramp. A violent, stabbing pain seizes me and the world spins and tips dangerously. I grab the bookcase and manage to steady myself as the pain recedes. Trembling, I open the bookcase door and, with effort, extract the tan book. As I pick up the heavy text, a spasm tears deep through my gut and I drop the book and collapse to my knees in a fetal position, clutching my abdomen. As I fall, I dimly hear the bookcase door slam and the crack of glass breaking. The agony within me does not ease, but instead intensifies in fresh waves—as though my innards are being kneaded, like dough. I am crying now, waiting for the contractions to ease, wondering what was in the pills to cause this torture. I don’t want to die, I weep silently, biting my knuckles to keep from waking the household. Oh, God, I didn’t want this.
After what seem like hours but in reality must have been only minutes, the pain subsides, leaving me weak and gasping. It takes almost all of my strength, but I push myself up into a more sitting position, leaning against the bookcase for support, and the iron fist beneath my stomach slowly releases, finger by finger. I exhale, my breath uneven. Sweating and shaking, I drag the book, as heavy as a lead weight in my rubbery arms, onto my lap, the aftershocks of the cramp still fresh.
With an effort, I open the book and it falls open to somewhere in the middle. For a moment, my vision blurs and I feel faint, but I blink and the world jumps back into focus. I burst into tears as I realize my efforts have been for naught, for staring back up at me is photograph of a tiny child dressed in a christening gown and lying in a coffin.
The Book of Secrets is no text of the occult. It is not a text that will give me the words to take away my pain. It is an album.
My stomach roils as I realize there is a curl of baby-blond hair pasted to the page and a caption in Miss Caldwell’s neat, leftward-slanting hand: Jonathan S. Caldwell ~ January 7, 1879 – November 5, 1879. The photograph is thirty-five years old, which means Miss Caldwell must have been young then—only a few years older than I am. I shiver, from both chills and terror, wondering what I have done. I lurch forward, over the Book in my lap, gripping the pile of the rug as my abdomen contracts violently, making me vomit. And then I feel the blood come in a sudden, heavy, deluge. I remain there, huddling in a spreading puddle of my blood and sob tears of relief and sorrow.
* * * * *
“Miss Caldwell was the one who found me the next morning, weaker than a baby born too early. She did not fire me and she never commented on the state in which she had found me. Within two weeks, I had recovered sufficiently to perform most of my duties, but I quit a month later on my own terms. I couldn’t continue working at Grimmare Hall feeling as though I had betrayed Miss Caldwell’s trust and exploiting her kindness for it,” I finished, shifting in my seat, remembering the discomfort that had followed me in the month after taking the pills. I glance at Patricia for the first time since I began telling about the indiscretion in the barn.
She is sitting attentively, denim knees hugged to her chest in sympathy pains, her mouth dropped open in surprise. Half of her fourth or fifth shortbread forgotten in her fingers, trailing crumbs on her pants and the armchair. Her cup of tea sits likewise forgotten on the table and is surely stone cold by now. “What was the photograph?” she finally asks; her first words since I began my tale.
“It was Miss Caldwell’s illegitimate son who died within his first year of life. The Book of Secrets is exactly that—it is an album of all the secrets a woman would like to forget but never will. You may look at it if you’d like; I inherited it from Miss Caldwell just before I left Grimmare Hall. She told me her story before bequeathing it to me.” I gesture towards a small, unvarnished oak bookcase beneath a bay window. “It’s the tan one between the black and green books on the top shelf. You may look at it,” I tell Patricia. “It is unlocked.”
Patricia balances her shortbread on the edge of her saucer and unfolds her tall, lanky form from the armchair. I watch her extract the book, treating it with the utmost care and, as she stares into the diamond-shaped mirror, she no longer seems like a child. For a moment, she, with her expression unconcealed by hair and clouded with seriousness, reminds me of myself. There is no sound but the gentle turning of pages.
“Who is this?” Patricia’s voice fills the recesses of the room. I do not need to look at the book to know whose photograph she is looking at. It is my contribution to the album—to the Book of Secrets. I know the picture and I know there is no name underneath it, only dates in my own hand: October 19, 1897 – March 1918. The picture is a black and white photograph of a young man dressed in an army uniform. If it were in color, the young man would have a head of vivid orange hair.
“That is… was Brighton Gray,” I finally manage. I am surprised how difficult it is to say his name, despite the passage of fifty years. Before she can speak, I answer her question, “I left Grimmare, yes, but I didn’t leave Bright. He left with me. We remained close until he was drafted and sent overseas. He was killed fighting in the Great War—the First World War. He was twenty-one and he is my contribution to the Book of Secrets, which is now yours.”