Ten Years Earlier
Elizabeth was twelve when her father died, so young, said her aunt, to be left on her own. To begin with, she was motherless, and the care that her father provided had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, and he protected her more completely than he might have otherwise. She had been raised in a world so sheltered that the nature of her mother’s death was long forgotten. Her mother died when she was three, before her father moved to England. Her father never spoke of her and turned quickly away when Elizabeth asked questions; she understood very young that this was a topic too painful for him to discuss. And she had been living in England for so long that she had nearly forgotten her early life with her in the United States.
After her father’s death Elizabeth went to live with an estrange Aunt, in Cambridge. She became Elizabeth’s surrogate parent. She was older than her father, a wealthy widow with no children, a passionate bibliophile and clumsy with teenagers. Elizabeth hated her. In fact she was terrified of her and her tough-talking, chain-smoking sophisticated diplomatic circle of friends – around them she always felt inadequate. Elizabeth was homeschooled, and was never allowed out in the evenings, except to the occasional carefully approved social with carefully approved friends, and Elizabeth never defied these rules; it was the medium in which she had been raised.
With little else to occupy herself, she spend a lot of time in her aunt’s library, a large, fine room on the first floor of the house. The library had once been a sitting room, but her aunt considered a large library far more important than a large living room. And she had long since given Elizabeth free access to her collection. She spent hours browsing the shelves that lined every wall, and sat down only to read. Late one evening she came across a translation of the Kama Sutra, but it was the book next to it that attracted her, a much older volume stuffed with an envelope of yellowing papers. The image she saw at the center of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and her discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught her attention forcibly. She knew she shouldn’t examine her aunt’s private papers, or anyone’s, and the fear of being caught made her look over her shoulder at the door. But she couldn’t help reading the first paragraph of the top-most letter.
My dearest and duteous comrade:
“’Old friend, it is with regret that I write to you, for I unwilling run the risk of exposing you by writing this letter. I write to you only with the utmost sorrow, old friend, because if you are reading this, it means my safety has been torn away and you are now the sole porter of the ghastly truth. I beg of you if nothing else solemn faith in the account I must put down here. It is only by some divine mercy, I suppose, or perhaps for wholly unknown reasons her soul was left untouched. However, these last few days I became convinced I saw it. Why I myself inherited it I don’t know, but I find myself increasingly inclined to believe that our damnation lies outside the governance of any natural laws. Rooted in a machination of supernatural origin and undoubtedly some sort of grotesque blasphemy have been thrust upon me from the depths of some hellish plane. Or perhaps, God finally abandoned me, and all that has happened is simply a result of the absence of his presence. Reluctantly, I find myself preparing for the worst, and in some other sense, you too will soon be the heir of this evil if I cannot find a way to stop it.’”
At this point, a sense of guilt – and something else, too – made Elizabeth put the letter hastily back in its envelope. It was the first time she had ever acted selfishly out of inquisitiveness, and the first time she had kept a secret. In the back of her mind she understood that her aunt had purposely hidden the letter on the top shelves, or – more likely – forgotten she had. She shoved the envelope back inside the book and placed it back on the top shelves. But she thought about what she read the rest of the day and all the next. The next day she waited for an opportunity to enter the library and look for the strange book and the letters. She waited to be free, to be alone, but her aunt was very stalwart of the library, and even overbearingly attentive of her; sometimes, looking at her too-intensely, and the manner of it made Elizabeth uncomfortably self-conscious, she felt that her dress was inappropriate, or that she should have been wearing something else entirely. Something about her aunt’s strange behavior made Elizabeth hesitate to continue on her quest.
The two sat at one end of the long dining table, her aunt with her back to the window, and drank tea with lemon, scalding through the thin cups, and ate sardines on a few slices of buttered torta. Her aunt disliked the way she blew on her tea over and over to cool it, her aunt disliked the way she slump on her chair; with her everything was so serious. Elizabeth accepted the never-ending lessons of etiquette forced on her in silence, although she hated her for it. She stared through the silver-mottled window to the wet garden, gloomy in the deepening afternoon rain, while her aunt made small talk about the weather out of sheer politeness. Elizabeth stared at her aunt in her neat high-collar dress and her low tight bun; she realized – probably for the first time – that her aunt looked nothing like her father. Her face was round with large eyes where her father’s face was long and thin, and she was short and heavy unlike her father who was tall and slim… he had always been so, and Elizabeth had inherited his slim frame, and grey eyes. She sensed that unlike her father her aunt had denied herself every adventure in life except book collecting, which consumed her. And she feared that she too was becoming like her aunt, most content in solitude and surrounded by books.
Elizabeth hesitated, took a breath. “I found something I wanted to ask you about.” She felt an inexplicable surge of fear. Her aunt looked mildly at her, eyebrows raised above her blue eyes. “It was in your library,” she said. “I’m sorry…I was poking around and I found some papers and a book. I didn’t look…much…at the papers. I thought…”
“Papers?” Still her aunt remained mild, checking her cup for a last drop of tea, pretending to be half listening. She set the cup down and pointed to the library, just visible from across the long dining table and asked, “Would you be a dear and bring them to me?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth was out of her chair even before the words came out of her mouth. She enter the library as if she had been urgently beckoned from inside; she reached for the top shelves expecting to find the book exactly where she had left it, but it was not there. For a moment she thought she made a mistake, but she was sure she had put the book back where she found it – on the top shelves next to the book of the Kama Sutra. She searched in every corner of the top shelves, she searched all around the library but never found it. It disappeared.