Every day should be a party. Parties are wonderful. Bright, vibrant, full of colour and excitement and people, all the people I love. I love this party, these people. Love my sister Marian, and her kind grey eyes. Love this dress I am wearing, new, beautiful, the colour of roses in summer, like a new bloom just opening in the soft morning light, love how it sways and moves as I move, like a field of poppies in a warm midsummer breeze. Love most of all the rubies in the bracelet mother gave me to wear. Like flowers in bloom, like boiled candies, like captured firelight, like pure colour itself.
I see Ciara Tobin across the room, her pale hair shining in the light, blush skin radiant under the chandelier. I rush to greet her, embrace her, tell her how wonderful a party this is, how fabulous a house, how radiant she looks, as if made of sunbeams. Ciara laughs, delighted to see me in one of my exuberant moods. Ciara is The Magician, diplomatic, self-possessed, capable. I love those qualities in her.
“Do you know Aubrey is here?” she asks.
I almost gasp with excitement.
“He is really back, really and actually back?”
“Yes,” she laughs, “his ship arrived last week. And now he is making a dramatic return to society. See for yourself.”
I turn, and there he is. Tall as ever, not spindly, nor broad. Just … just. He is exactly as he always was, yet perhaps his hazel eyes are a little more mature even as they sparkle with amusement at my reaction. The blueness of his jacket is the perfect blue, perfect for him, the best blue I have seen. Aubrey is Fortitude, energy and success in his endeavours.
“Yes, really and actually back” he laughs, smiling that smile, giving me that look. Ciara asks him how his trip went, and he recounts the long voyage out to the Indies, his family’s airy house in Kingston, some crowded exhibition there at which he represented the family interest, a story of business complications on the island that delayed his return to London. And smiled all the time, as he patiently answered Ciara’s questions, and watched me fidget and barely follow the conversation. I can never bear to stand still at parties, or listen to others. I want to talk, to dance, to play. Aubrey knows I am never still at a party.
At last Ciara is called away to greet other guests, and Aubrey pulls me towards the ballroom. We almost run, giggling, down the hallway, catching shocked glances from the older guests at our haste. Until we reach the ballroom, Aubrey takes my hand in his, and we begin to dance. I love to dance, especially with Aubrey. The world falls away and it is just he, and I, and the excitement of moving with him.
We whirl through dance after dance, until at last, at the end of a dance, Aubrey catches a glance from his father, who gestures for Aubrey to join him and other dark-suited men in serious conversation. Aubrey bows dramatically and kisses my hand. I laugh again, electrified by the touch of his lips, and bid him farewell. I leave the dance floor, stroking the folds out of my rose-coloured skirt as I go.
I seek out a joyful group I see on the edge of the ballroom, laugh with them, dance and whirl and spin for what feels like hours. The spinning is intoxicating. I feel freer than anyone there, than anyone ever has been, free to live and love and enjoy all the endless excitement of the world. I laugh the loudest, dance the most, am the life of the party. At the end of another dance with another man, I leave the dance floor, beginning to feel a little tired at last. I looked down at my dress, crumpled and lined, like a flower that has fallen to the floor and been crushed under foot.
I look up and see her. Laura Vordenberg’s green eyes always captivate me. I gather my skirts and go to her. As I cross the room, the merriment seems to fade away, like a dream. I see Laura’s nipped waist and full skirt. See the deep green of her dress, deeper than her eyes, but somehow a perfect match. See the delicate sparkle of jewels on her wrists, in her soft hair, around her neck. She looks so much like The Empress in my cards I almost laugh again with delight.
Finally, I am close enough to see her face, embrace her, and realise that she is not smiling. My chest tightens. Laura is The Empress in her aspect of action, acting always to protect me. I wish tonight she was The Empress reversed, in the aspect of public rejoicings. I wish Laura rejoiced to see me. I wish I didn’t cause that look of sadness in her eyes.
“Marcella, what happened to your arm?” she asks, with that soft voice of concern I know too well.
I look down. A curving stream of crimson rounds my wrist, already drying, crusting around the rubies in my bracelet. I see that the rubies are morbid and gory. Gaping holes of mangled flesh. I have tied wounds to myself, invited disaster.
I sleep fitfully, in a dark room, half-waking then falling into restless unsleep. My wrist aches. I can feel the ragged edges of my flesh, the bloody double of my rubies, a hole ripped in my skin.
I wake into a dark, drab kind of gloom, hearing footsteps. It is Marian, who crosses the room carefully, stepping around objects scattered on the floor in the half-light. She takes off her shawl, the purple one she looks so well in, and covers the mirror on my vanity. Then she crosses to the window, and draws the curtain slightly, so that a shaft of light cuts through the gloom. The light hits the wall, slices a line of crimson into the rusty darkness. I flinch at this new violence.
I should feel grateful. I hate the mirror, hate its mocking aspect. I hate the sunlight, how it paws at me and hurts my eyes. Yet I feel nothing. Marian’s kindness finds no response in me, and I cannot even acknowledge it.
She crosses the room again, and sits carefully on the edge of my bed. I long for her to stroke my hair, pull it back from my face and smile at me, and I also feel angry that she might.
She doesn’t touch my face, or my hair. She sits quietly with me.
“What happened to your wrist, Marcella?,” she asks softly. I look down, and notice the gash has been bound, carefully and neatly wrapped in pale bandages. Much better than I would have done. Marian must have dressed it last night before I slept. Marian is The Emperor, stability, protection, benevolence, compassion.
“Oh, those delicate little glasses they use for parties, you know how easily they break,” I lied. I have no idea how I cut myself, no memory of it at all. Just the throbbing wound, slicing its bloody line into my consciousness, over and again, a memento of no memory. But I don’t want Marian to know that, don’t want to give her more reason to worry. Marian should be my older sister, she acts like an older sister should. But I am 18 months older than she. I can’t be the older sister she deserves, calm and solid and reassuring. But perhaps sometimes I can make the turmoil of my life seem a little less so. I would like her to think she needn’t worry so much about me. I wonder if she ever believes me.
“A letter came for you. From Laura.”
“Really? How queer. I saw her only last night, she didn’t mention writing to me.”
“The post mark is this morning, it came with the late afternoon post.”
I looked confused, unsure as to how Laura could have written already when I saw her only a few hours ago. Marian noticed my look of puzzlement.
“It’s 6pm, Marcella. You slept the day,” she said gently.
A missing day. This is appropriate. The dusk is right. What I had taken for morning light through the curtains are the last rays before sunset. The daylight is not for me, I am a crawling, mewling, twisted creature, only fit for shadows.
Marian looks at my pale face, the dark circles of my eyes, the absences. She places the letter gently on my bedside table and quietly leaves the room.
The envelope from Laura is lavender, adorned with that beautiful handwriting, a hand I would know anywhere. I reach out for it, feel the ache in my wrist and see, in my mind’s eye, drops of blood fall from my dripping, crimson fingers, spoiling the perfect surface of Laura’s letter, blurring her words, soaking through the envelope to the letter within and drowning her message in scarlet. I pull back my hand, pale and dry.
I reach instead to the drawer beneath, open it, and remove the wrap of light muslin encircled with blue thread. I unwind the thread, unwrap the muslin, remove the cards, and begin to shuffle them, over and again, and again and again. I barely see the passing images beneath my fingers, all my familiar friends, all my implacable enemies.
I move the cards through my fingers, again, and again, and again, and again.
I don’t weave, or look in mirrors. Instead I look with the cards.
I draw a card, and place it before me on the bedsheets. The Card With No Name. The horse and rider. He is reversed here, signifying inability to change, the opposite of his plain meaning of changeability or change soon to come. Yet is he reversed or am I? I feel upside down today, sunk down at the bottom of the well looking up at his ethereal arm stretching out to me. He is eternal, I am mortal, frail, finite. Am I incapable of changing, fated always to be exactly as I am? Or too changeable, too moved, like the bending of willow branches in the wind, always pulled along no matter the strength of the gust?
I let the rest of the cards fall from my hands onto the sheet, obscuring him.
Marian wants me to get up. Ciara’s party was days ago, she says, and with father and mother away she is the only one to rouse me from my bed. She has hung my costume out for me. It looks dull and faded in the dim light, but the colours still call to me.
I reach again for the cards, shuffle, over and again, and then draw.
The Unnumbered card, The Fool, in plain aspect signifying extravagance and intoxication, reversed signifying carelessness and vanity. All aspects of a ball. The cards are telling me to rise, echoing my sister, so I do, and call for Charity to bring water and help me bathe, and to send to the kitchen for food.
Bathed, and fed, and even dressed, I stand in front of the mirror, and pull aside Marian’s shawl. It falls to the floor. The dress is exactly as it should be. Mother was furious, but it came before she could stop the order. An inappropriate dress for a lady, but not so inappropriate as to waste money over it. Green and blue, with gold braid and a crown, and a set of daggers. An elegant Lady Macbeth. I pull down the mask, turn and spin in front of the mirror. Perfect.
Marian comes in again, and smiles as she picks up her shawl, folds it, and places it on the table. I look over at her, take in her pale gold gown. The ideal Cordelia. I reach for her hand and smile back.
Midnight is my favourite time. Parties are at their best at midnight, no one is tired yet but everyone has expanded, become the best, most enchanting versions of themselves.
“I swear, it’s him!” exclaims the man in the Mark Antony outfit from beneath his mask. The rest of us laugh. We are trying to guess at the identity of the guests. To see who might be here, if there are Masons, actors, politicians. No one seriously believes that the Grand Old Man himself is here, although one young Hamlet claims to have recognised him in the garb of King Lear. Rumours swirl of others. Mark Antony is trying to convince us that a grey-bearded man in a Prospero costume is the Member for Finsbury Central Naoroji. Hamlet disagrees.
I am bubbling, laughing, dancing every step, unable to keep still. I leave the others to their gossip, and rush to the dance floor. Iago asks to dance, and I gleefully agree. We whirl around the floor, fast and happy and joyous. Another dance, another figure. Julius Caesar. Othello. Romeo. Oberon. On and on. Passing from one to the next, whirling faster and faster, almost sweeping myself off my own feet with the constant movement. I laugh at all their jokes, smile at their comments, allow them to pull me around faster and faster.
As I dance on, I notice Mercutio and Titania looking at me. Mercutio moves his mask for a moment as he leans over to say something to Titania, and I recognise Aubrey. He isn’t smiling today. I realise Titania has green eyes. Laura. I think of the sixth card reversed, of catastrophe, irreversible harm. I stumble, almost fall. My partner roughly pulls me back to my feet, tells me it’s time for a break. I glance around, but Mercutio and Titania have left the room, I can’t see them anymore, and my heart twists in my chest.
I look at my dance partner, and realise he is dressed as Claudius, with a mask contorted into a sneering smile. I can’t see his face, but I feel it must look the same, as if his visage had forced its way through to put its mark on the mask. He takes my arm, and draws me with him to a group of men, all loudly talking. The group greet Claudius, braying. He quickly takes centre stage. Claudius keeps one hand on my arm as he talks to the others. They stare at me, or let their eyes rove around the room, as they listen to him. He is talking about some previous ball, some earlier dance, some other encounter. The others laugh at his tale. I laugh too, as his fingers take a tighter grip on my arm.
He is Fortitude reversed, the excess of power, bringing discord.
I should go, but I don’t.
Claudius finishes his story, and leans over me, that sneering face coming close to mine, half-whispering, but still talking loudly enough for his friends to hear. I laugh loudly at his lewd comment, ignoring the twisting feeling in my heart, the aching pain of my wrist, the pressure of his fingers digging into my arm, the dark feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Sister, it’s time we were leaving.”
Marian’s voice appears as if from nowhere. I look around, and see her standing behind us, and the grey, distinguished host of the ball at her side. Mercutio and Titania stand behind them. I feel my companion reluctantly release my arm, and I step towards Marian.
I wake again in gloom, sore and aching. My wrist, my arm. I can see, even in the dim light, a purpling-greening bruise on my forearm. Marks of fingers. Of a sure will and firm purpose. I curl up, child-like, and feel tears burning in my eyes. Will Marian to come, and to stay away.
I lie for an age in darkness, my body heaving from tears, then falling still, entirely empty of any feeling, then wracked by sadness again. Like the swell of waves in some dark ocean, rising and falling, pulling me along for no purpose I can discern, to an end that is hidden from me. At last all seems to quiet down, and I reach for my cards.
I pull myself up, and shuffle the cards, over and again, then begin to read.
The first card, the Theme. The Devil. Violence, death, predestination.
The second card, the Past. The Moon reversed. Inconsistency, error and deception.
The Third card, the Future. The Tower. Misery, calamity, ruin.
The fourth card, the Reason. The Hanged Man reversed. Selfishness and solipsism.
The fifth card, the Potential. Judgement. The end of days.
The cards are bleak today, show me nothing of comfort, only the darkness of my soul. The face in the Moon card looks out at me sternly, like Lord Wessex, when he stood next to Marian in the ballroom last night. Marian, who always hopes for better, whom I continuously disappoint. Aubrey, whose smile I break into pieces. And Laura, Laura whose letter I cannot even read.
I let the cards fall from my bed onto the floor.
I get up, twitch the curtains to allow a little sun to creep in, and wander around my room in the half-light, slowly dressing myself. I go to the bed-side table, hesitating, looking at the cards, and at Laura’s letter. I pick up Laura’s letter, still unopened, and thrust it in my pocket. I go to the door, open it, and listen. I hear the distant sound of voices to my right, and I go left, down the back stairs. I pass along the long corridor, with the windows out into the garden. The early autumn light streams through the windows, and I pass from darkness to light, from light to darkness.
When I reach the garden door I hesitate again. Hearing the gardeners chatting and laughing as they work to the left, and the clatter of the maids setting an outside table on the terrace on my right, I go straight ahead, and then into the comforting green dark of the tunnel of trees.
The trees throw a muted, dappled light onto the gravel path within the tunnel, a shifting pattern of soft light and deeper shade. I walk slowly along the path, feeling sheltered from view, from that painful brightness of other people’s gazes. As I walk onwards the sound of voices and clatter fades, and I hear instead the hum from the beehives mother installed last summer, and the rush of water in the stream by the grotto grandfather built.
I go to the grotto, finding it still, and softly dark. Find the little seat half-hidden just inside the entrance. When you come in from the sun, you can hardly see it, but when you are inside it is right here. I feel my skin cool after the relative warmth of the tunnel as I stand in the stony grotto, listen to the faint hum of the bees, still faintly audible this far away, and watch the gentle flow of the water in the stream, cascading softly over round stones. I sit down on the seat, with Laura’s letter in my pocket, and start to cry.
Clare Griffin is a historian of early modern science, mental health advocate, and fiction author specialising in pieces on the neurodivergent experience. She works as Assistant Professor for the history of science and technology at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. She lives with OCD and a bipolar spectrum disorder. www.claregriffin.org