Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
No, Catalina wouldn’t have been the type to wear a bracelet of ojo de venado on her wrist. How had she ended up at this house, talking to Marta Duval, then?
The old woman placed the bowls on the table and pulled out a chair. When she sat down there was a sudden fluttering of wings, which startled Noemí, and a parrot swooped onto the woman’s shoulder.
“Sit,” Marta said, taking a peeled peanut and handing it to the parrot. “What do you want?”
Noemí sat down across from her. “You made a remedy for my cousin, and she needs more of it.”
“What was it?”
“I’m not sure. Her name is Catalina. Do you remember her?”
“The girl from High Place.”
The woman took another peanut and gave it to the parrot, which cocked its head and stared at Noemí.
“Yes, Catalina. How do you know her?”
“I don’t. Not really. Your cousin used to come to church once in a while, and she must’ve gotten to talking with someone there because she came to see me, told me that she needed something to help her sleep. She visited me a couple of times. Last time I saw her she was agitated, but wouldn’t tell me about her problems. She asked me to mail a letter for her, addressed to someone in Mexico City.”
“Why didn’t she mail it herself?”
“I don’t know. She said, ‘Come Friday, if we don’t see each other, mail this,’ so I did. Like I said, she wouldn’t discuss her problems. She said she had bad dreams, and I tried to help with that.”
, Noemí thought, recalling her nightmare. It wasn’t hard to have bad dreams in a house like that. She placed her hands on top of her purse. “Well, whatever you gave her must have worked, because she wants more of it.”
“More.” The woman sighed. “I told the girl, no tea is going to make her feel better, not for long.”
“What do you mean?”
“That family is cursed.” The woman touched the parrot’s head, scratching it, and the bird closed its eyes. “You haven’t heard the stories?”
“There was an epidemic,” Noemí said cautiously, wondering if she meant that.
“Yes, there was sickness, much sickness. But that wasn’t the only thing. Miss Ruth, she shot them.”
“Who’s Miss Ruth?”
“It’s a famous story around these parts. I can tell it, but it’ll cost you a little.”
“You’re rather mercenary. I’m already going to pay for the medicine.”
“We’ve got to eat. Besides, it’s a good story, and no one knows it as well as I do.”
“So you’re a healer and a storyteller.”
“Told you, young miss, we got to eat,” the woman said with a shrug.
“All right. I’ll pay for a story. You have an ashtray?” she asked, taking out her cigarettes and her lighter.
Marta grabbed a pewter cup from the kitchen and placed it before her, and Noemí leaned forward, both elbows resting on the table, and lit her cigarette. She offered the old woman a cigarette and Marta took two, smiling, but she did not light either one, instead tucking them in her apron’s pocket. Perhaps she’d smoke the cigarettes later. Or even sell them.
“Where to begin? Ruth, yes. Ruth was Mr. Doyle’s daughter. Mr. Doyle’s darling child, she wanted for nothing. Back then they had many servants. Always lots of servants to polish the silver and make teas. The bulk of those servants were people from the village, and they lived at the house, but sometimes they came down to town. For the market, for other things. And they’d talk, about all the pretty things at High Place and pretty Miss Ruth.
“She was going to marry her cousin—Michael, it was—and they’d ordered a dress from Paris and ivory head combs for her hair. But a week before the wedding, she grabbed a rifle and shot her groom, shot her mother, her aunt, and her uncle. She shot her father, but he survived. And she might have shot Virgil, her baby brother, but Miss Florence hid away with him. Or maybe Ruth had mercy.”
Noemí hadn’t seen a single weapon in the house, but then they must have tossed the rifle. There was only silver on display, and she wondered, incongruously, if the bullets the murderess had used might not have been made of silver.
“When she was done shooting them, she took the rifle and killed herself.” The woman cracked a peanut.
What a morbid tale! And yet, this was not a conclusion. Merely a pause. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
“You’re not going to tell me the rest?”
“One has to eat, young miss.”
“You won’t be stingy?”
Noemí had placed the box of cigarettes on the table. Marta extended a wrinkled hand and took another one, again tucking it in her apron. She smiled.
“The servants left after that. The people who remained in High Place were the family and trusted folks they’d employed for a long time. They stayed there, stayed out of sight. Then one day Miss Florence was suddenly at the train station, off on vacation when she had never set a foot outside the house. She came back married to a young man. Richard, he was called.
“He wasn’t like the Doyles. He was talkative; he liked to come down to town in his car and have a drink and chat. He’d lived in London and New York and Mexico City, and you got the feeling that the house of the Doyles wasn’t his favorite place of them all. He was talkative, all right, and then he started talking strange things.”
“What sort of things?”
“Talk of ghosts and spirits and the evil eye. He was a strong man, Mr. Richard, until he wasn’t, and he looked rather shabby and thin, stopped coming into town and disappeared from view. They found him at the bottom of a ravine. There’re lots of ravines here, you might have noticed that, well, there he was, dead at twenty-nine, left behind a son.”
, she thought. Pale-faced Francis with his soft hair and his softer smile. She’d heard nothing of this long saga, but then she supposed it was not the kind of thing anyone would like to discuss.
“It all sounds tragic, but I’m not sure I’d call it a curse.”
“You’d call it coincidence, wouldn’t you? Yes, I suppose you would. But the fact is everything they touch rots.”
. The word sounded so ugly, it seemed to stick to the tongue, it made Noemí want to bite her nails even though she’d never done such a thing. She was particular about her hands; ugly nails wouldn’t have done for her. It was odd, that house. The Doyles and their servants were all an odd lot, but a curse? No.
“It couldn’t be anything but coincidence,” she said, shaking her head.
“Can you make the same remedy you made for Catalina the last time?”
“It’s no easy thing. I’d have to gather the ingredients, and it would take me a little while. It wouldn’t solve the issue. It’s like I said: the problem is that house, that cursed house. Jump on that train and leave it behind, that’s what I told your cousin. I thought she’d listened, but what do I know?”
“Yes, I’m sure you did. What’s the price of this remedy, anyway?” Noemí asked.
“The remedy and the stories.”
“Yes, that too.”
The woman named a sum. Noemí opened her purse and took out a few bills. Marta Duval might have cataracts, but she saw the bills clearly enough.
“It would take me a week. Come back in a week, but I make no promises,” the woman said, extending her hand, and Noemí placed the bills in her palm. The woman folded them and tucked them in her apron’s pocket. “Can you spare another cigarette?” she added.
“Very well. I hope you like them,” Noemí said, handing her one more. “They’re Gauloises.”
“They’re not for me.”
“Then for whom?”
“Saint Luke the Evangelist,” she said, pointing to one of the plaster figurines on her shelves.
“Cigarettes for saints?”
“He likes them.”
“He has expensive tastes,” Noemí said, wondering if she could find a store that sold anything even close to Gauloises in town. She’d have to replenish her stock soon.
The woman smiled, and Noemí handed her another bill. What the hell. As she’d said, everyone had to eat and God knew how many customers the old lady had. Marta seemed very pleased and smiled even more.
“Well, I’m off, then. Don’t let Saint Luke smoke all the cigarettes at once.”
The woman chuckled, and they walked outside. They shook hands. And the woman squinted.
“How do you sleep?” the woman asked.
“You have dark circles under your eyes.”
“It’s the cold up here. It keeps me awake at night.”
“I hope it’s that.”
Noemí thought of her odd dream, the golden glow. It had been a rather hideous nightmare, but she had not had time to analyze it. She had a friend who swore by Jung, but Noemí had never understood the whole “the dream is the dreamer” bit, nor had she cared to interpret her dreams. Now she recalled one particular thing Jung wrote: everyone carries a shadow. And like a shadow the woman’s words hung over Noemí as she drove back to High Place.
That evening, Noemí was summoned once again to the dreary dinner table with its tablecloth of white damask and the candles, and around this ancient table the Doyles gathered together, Florence, Francis, and Virgil. The patriarch would have supper in his room, it seemed.
Noemí ate little, stirring the spoon around her bowl and itching for conversation, not nourishment. After a little while she could not contain herself any longer and chuckled. Three pairs of eyes settled on her.
“Really, must we tie our tongues all dinner long?” she asked. “Could we speak perhaps three or four sentences?”
Her voice was like fine glass, contrasting with the heavy furniture and heavy drapes and the equally weighty faces turned toward her. She didn’t mean to be a nuisance, but her carefree nature had little understanding of solemnity. She smiled, hoping for a smile in return, for a moment of levity inside this opulent cage.
“As a general rule we do not speak during dinner, as I explained last time. But it seems you are very keen on breaking every rule in this house,” Florence said, carefully dabbing a napkin against her mouth.
“What do you mean?”
“You took a car to town.”
“I needed to drop a couple of letters at the post office.” This was no lie, for she had indeed scribbled a short letter to her family. She had thought to dutifully send a missive to Hugo too, but then reconsidered. Hugo and Noemí were not a couple in the proper sense of the word, and she worried if she did send a letter he might interpret it as a sign of an impending and serious commitment.
“Charles can take any letters.”
“I’d rather do it myself, thank you.”
“The roads are bad. What would you do if your car was stuck in the muck?” Florence asked.
“I imagine I’d walk back,” Noemí replied, setting down her spoon. “Really, it’s not a problem.”
“I imagine it isn’t for
. The mountain has its dangers.”
The words did not seem outright hostile, but Florence’s disapproval was thick as treacle, coating each and every syllable. Noemí felt suddenly like a girl who’d had her knuckles rapped, and this made her raise her chin and stare back at the woman in the same way she had stared at the nuns at her school, armored with poised insurrection. Florence even resembled the mother superior a little: it was her expression of utter despondency. Noemí almost expected her to demand she take out her rosary.
“I thought I explained myself when you arrived. You must consult with me on matters concerning this house, its people, and the things in it. I was specific. I told you Charles was to drive you into town and, if not him, then perhaps Francis,” Florence said.
“I didn’t think—”
“And you have smoked in your room. Don’t bother denying it. I said it was forbidden.”
Florence stared at Noemí, and Noemí imagined the woman sniffing at the linens, examining a cup for traces of ashes. Like a bloodhound, out for prey. Noemí intended to protest, to say that she had smoked but twice in her room and both times she had intended to open the window, but it was not her fault it wouldn’t open. It was closed so tight you’d think they’d nailed it shut.
“It’s a filthy habit. As are certain girls,” Florence added.
Now it was Noemí’s turn to stare at Florence. How dare she. Before she could say anything, Virgil spoke.
“My wife tells me your father can be a rather strict man,” he said, all cool detachment. “He’s set in his ways.”
“Yes,” Noemí replied, glancing at Virgil. “At times he is.”
“Florence has managed High Place for decades,” Virgil said. “As we do not have many visitors, you can imagine she’s quite set in her ways too. And it’s quite unacceptable, don’t you think, for a visitor to ignore the rules of a house?”
She felt ambushed; she thought they had planned to scold her together. She wondered if they did this with Catalina. She would go into the dining room and offer a suggestion—about the food, the décor, the routine—and they would politely, delicately silence her. Poor Catalina, who was gentle and obedient, as gently squashed down.
She had lost her appetite, which had been scant to begin with, and sipped her glass of sickly-sweet wine rather than attempt to converse. Eventually Charles walked in to inform them that Howard would like to see them after dinner, and they made their way up the stairs, like a traveling court off to greet the king.
Howard’s bedroom was very large and decorated with more of the weighty, dark furniture that abounded around the rest of the house, and thick velvet curtains that could conceal the thinnest ray of light.
The most striking feature of the room was the fireplace, with a carved wooden mantelpiece adorned with what at first glance seemed to be circles, but revealed themselves to be more of those snakes eating their tails that she’d spotted before at the cemetery and in the library. A sofa had been set in front of the fireplace, and upon it sat the patriarch, swaddled in a green robe.
Howard looked even older that evening. He reminded her of one of the mummies she’d seen in the catacombs in Guanajuato, arranged in two rows for tourists to peek at. Upright they stood, preserved by a quirk of nature, and dragged from their graves when the burial tax was not paid so that they might be exhibited. He had that same withered, sunken aspect, as though he had already been embalmed, the elements reducing him to bone and marrow.
The others walked ahead of her, each of them clasping the old man’s hand in greeting, then stepping aside.
“There you are. Come, sit with me,” the old man said, motioning to her.
Noemí sat next to Howard, giving him a vague, polite smile. Florence, Virgil, and Francis did not join them, instead choosing another couch and chairs on the other end of the room to sit down. She wondered if he always received people in this manner, picking one lucky person who would be allowed at his side, who would be granted an audience, while the rest of the family was brushed aside for the time being. A long time ago this room might have been filled with relatives, friends, all of them waiting and hoping Howard Doyle would curl a finger in their direction and ask them to sit with him for a little while. She had seen photographs and paintings of a large number of people around the house, after all. The paintings were ancient; maybe they were not all of relatives who had lived at High Place, but the mausoleum hinted at a vast family or, perhaps, the assurance of descendants who would find their way there.
Two large oil paintings hanging above the fireplace caught Noemí’s eye. They each depicted a young woman. Both were fair-haired, both very similar in looks, so much so that at first glance one might take them for the same woman. However, there were differences: straight strawberry blond hair versus honeyed locks, a tad more plumpness in the face in the woman on the left. One wore an amber ring on her finger, which matched the one on Howard’s hand.
“Are these your relatives?” she asked, intrigued by the likeness, what she supposed was the Doyle look.
“These are my wives,” Howard said. “Agnes passed away shortly after our arrival to this region. She was pregnant when disease took her away.”
“It was a long time ago. But she has not been forgotten. Her spirit lives on in High Place. And there, the one on the right, that is my second wife. Alice. She was fruitful. A woman’s function is to preserve the family line. The children, well, Virgil is the only one left, but she did her duty and she did it well.”
Noemí looked up at the pale face of Alice Doyle, the blond hair cascading down her back, her right hand holding a rose between two fingers, her face serious. Agnes, to her left, was also robbed of mirth, clasping a bouquet between her hands, the amber ring catching a stray ray of light. They stared forward in their silk and lace with what? Resolution? Confidence?
“They were beautiful, were they not?” the old man asked. He sounded proud, like a man who has received a nice ribbon at the county fair for his prize hog or mare.
“Although what, my dear?”
“Nothing. They seem so alike.”
“I imagine they should. Alice was Agnes’s little sister. They were both orphaned and left penniless, but we were kin, cousins, and so I took them in. And when I traveled here Agnes and I were wed, and Alice came with us.”
“Then you twice married your cousin,” Noemí said. “And your wife’s sister.”
“Is it scandalous? Catherine of Aragon was first married to Henry VIII’s brother, and Queen Victoria and Albert were cousins.”
“You think you’re a king, then?”
Howard reached forward and patted her hand; his skin seemed paper-thin and dry, smiling. “Nothing as grandiose as that.”
“I’m not scandalized,” Noemí said politely and gave her head a little shake.
“I hardly knew Agnes,” Howard said with a shrug. “We were married and before a year had passed I was forced to organize a funeral. The house wasn’t even finished back then and the mine had been operating for a scant handful of months. Then the years passed, and Alice grew up. There were no suitable grooms for her in this part of the world. It was a natural choice. One could say preordained. This is her wedding portrait. See there? The date is clearly visible on that tree in the foreground: 1895. A wonderful year. So much silver that year. A river of it.”
The artist had indeed carved the tree with the year and the initials of the bride: AD. Agnes’s portrait sported the same detail, the year carved on a stone column: 1885, AD. Noemí wondered if they had simply dusted off the old bride’s trousseau and handed it to the younger sister. She imagined Alice pulling out linens and chemises monogrammed with her initials, pressing an old dress against her chest and staring into the mirror. A Doyle, eternally a Doyle. No, it wasn’t scandalous, but it was damn odd.
“Beautiful, my beautiful darlings,” the old man said, his hand still resting atop Noemí’s as he turned his eyes back toward the paintings, his fingers rubbing her knuckles. “Did you ever hear about Dr. Galton’s beauty map? He went around the British Isles compiling a record of the women he saw. He catalogued them as attractive, indifferent, or repellent. London ranked as the highest for beauty, Aberdeen the lowest. It might seem like a funny exercise, but of course it had its logic.”
“Aesthetics again,” Noemí said, as she delicately pulled her hand free from his and stood up, as if to take a closer look at the paintings. Truth be told she didn’t like his touch, nor did she much enjoy the faint unpleasant odor that emanated from his robe. It might have been an ointment or medicine that he’d applied.
“Yes, aesthetics. One must not dismiss them as frivolous. After all, didn’t Lombroso study men’s faces in order to recognize a criminal type? Our bodies hide so many mysteries and they tell so many stories without a single word, do they not?”
She looked at those portraits above their heads, the serious mouths, the pointed chins and luscious hair. What
they say, in their wedding dresses as the brush stroked the canvas? I am happy, unhappy, indifferent, miserable. Who knew. One could construct a hundred different narratives, it didn’t make them true.
“You mentioned Gamio when we last spoke,” Howard said, grabbing his cane and standing up to move next to her. Noemí’s attempt at distance had been in vain; he crowded her, touched her arm. “You’re correct. Gamio believes natural selection has pressed the indigenous people of this continent forward, allowing them to adapt to biological and geographical factors that foreigners cannot withstand. When you transplant a flower, you must consider the soil, mustn’t you? Gamio was on the right track.”
The old man folded his hands atop his cane and nodded, looking at the paintings. Noemí wished that someone would open a window. The room was stuffy, the conversations of the others were whispers. If they were conversing. Had they gone quiet? Their voices were like the buzzing of insects.
“I wonder why you are not married, Miss Taboada. You are the right age for it.”
“My father asks himself that same question,” Noemí said.
“And what lies do you tell him? That you are too busy? That you esteem many young men but cannot find one that truly captivates you?”
This was very close to what she’d said, and perhaps if he’d intoned the words with a certain levity it might have been constructed as a joke and Noemí would have clutched his arm for a moment and laughed. “Mr. Doyle,” she would have said, and they would have talked about her father and her mother, and how she was always quarreling with her brother, and her cousins who were numerous and lively.
But Howard Doyle’s words were harsh and his eyes had a sickening sort of animation to them. He almost leered at her, one of his thin hands brushing a strand of her hair, as if doing her a kindness—he’d found a bit of lint and tossed it away—but no. No kindness at all as he moved that lock behind her shoulder. He was a tall man even in his old age, and she didn’t like looking up at him, she didn’t like seeing him bend toward her like that. He looked like a stick insect, an insect hiding under a velvet robe. His lips curved into a smile as he leaned down closer, peering carefully at her.
He smelled foul. She turned her head, and she rested a hand against the mantelpiece. Her eyes met those of Francis, who was looking at them. She thought he was a scared bird, a pigeon, the eyes round and startled. It was very hard to imagine he was related to the insect-man before her.
“Has my son shown you the greenhouse?” Howard asked, stepping back, and his eyes lost their unpleasantness as he turned toward the fire.
“I didn’t know you had a greenhouse,” she replied, a little surprised. Then again, she hadn’t opened every door in the house, nor had she looked at the place from every angle. She hadn’t wanted to, beyond her first cursory exploration of High Place. It wasn’t a welcoming home.
“A very small one and in a state of disrepair, like most things around here, but the roof is of stained glass. You might like it. Virgil, I’ve told Noemí you will show her the greenhouse,” Howard said, the loudness of his voice so shocking in the quiet room that Noemí thought it might cause a small tremor.