Bread, Blood, and Candle
The doll was floating naked and face-down in the water, caught in an eddy of river-weed and garbage. Something about the listlessness of its arms, as if it had just that instant given up fighting the current, caught Linda's eye and made her kneel down on the damp stone embankment. The doll's face had been mostly worn away by the years, but as she scooped it up she could still make out the impression of a single eye staring at her, framed by intricately-carved ringlets. The figurine was certainly old, but how old she couldn't say.
"You coming? I think I felt a raindrop." Gregory's voice carried from across the street, and Linda nodded, about to drop it back in the river, when she found herself placing the doll inside her leather folio instead, dampening the blueprints issued by the city.
She returned to Gregory's side, as always admiring his broad shoulders and ramrod-straight posture. Linda herself was always slumping-- as if her fiery red hair weren't enough, she'd inherited her Nordic father's height as well. She stood out even more here in Provence than she did in her native London.
Gregory opened up his umbrella, large enough to encompass them both, and together they finished their preliminary survey of the site: the Bridge of Isle Sur L'Vaucluse. After three hundred years, its foundations had finally begun to crack. Hardly surprising. What was odd, was that the bridge's foundation had just been renovated the previous spring. Now the town's municipality was suing the renovators, the same corporation which had hired her and Gregory to do an analysis of the botched job.
"This is why you should never hire local contractors. They usually just get the job because they're someone's nephew, or they bribed the right councilman." Gregory eyed the staunch medieval bridge through a silvery veil of spring rain. "You know, I bet the bridge didn't even need shoring-up in the first place. Masons actually knew how to build back then."
His smugness irritated Linda, although she agreed with him. The bridge had connected the small town in the center isle of the river Vaucluse to the outside world for centuries, withstanding earthquakes, floods and WWII blitzkriegs, but could not withstand modern incompetence.
"We're going to have to speak to the local contractors in person. How's your French?"
She smiled and Gregory slipped his hand into hers. She squeezed it quickly before pulling away.
She had not yet decided whether or not to sleep with him. She knew she'd been leading him on since that first secret drunken kiss at the office New Years' party, but Linda had felt certain she'd be swept up by their Provençal setting-- the light, the wine, the heightened expectations. Perhaps she'd hoped their romantic environment would make the decision for her. Yet now that they'd arrived, the only thing she felt drawn to was the discarded plaything ensconced in her bag.
Linda's husband called that afternoon as she was typing up her initial report. Mark spoke carefully, seeming to weigh every word. She hated how he treated her these past few months, like a doll as fragile as the one she'd rescued.
"How do you feel?"
"Fine," she told him, as she always told him. This man who used to be her strength had lately become a reminder of her own weakness.
"How's the bleeding?"
"Just some spotting here and there. Dr. Chen said it would stop once my hormones stabilize." It's only been a few months; your body still thinks it's pregnant. You'll be able to try again soon.
"Well, if you need anything..." Mark's voice trailed off, uncertainly. They had become awkward, as if the miscarriage had stripped away the illusion of their marriage, the illusions that you need to carry on.
She was grateful for the knock on her hotel room door that allowed her to hang up quickly, with a minimum of reassurances.
Gregory was waiting for her, his sandy hair chronically disheveled, his blue chambray work shirt rolled up over his fore-arms in that way she liked.
She had to laugh at his terrible pronunciation.
"Better let me do the talking."
The address on the contracts led them to a small farmhouse, not far from the riverbank. The local foreman knew they were coming, yet took so long to open the door that Linda thought he may not be home. When she saw his face, gaunt and sallow, she took an involuntary step back. Her French came easily.
"I'm sorry Monsieur LeGrais, we didn't realize you were ill--"
He impatiently beckoned them inside, where a small peat fire in the hearth gave off too much smoke and not enough warmth. LeGrais settled into a chair at the kitchen table, and gestured for them to do the same. Crucifixes holding the emaciated body of Christ, and holy icons displaying scenes of grotesque martyrdom were the only decorations in the spartan room.
Linda began the interview process, laying out the extent of the structural damage.
"The bridge is no longer road-worthy. The renovation seems to have weakened the underlying foundation--"
Puffing furiously on a cigarette, LeGrais waved her off, and spoke directly to Gregory, as if the statuesque redhead before him could never understand their business.
"I've been laying stone for forty years in Vaucluse, and you think I don't know what I'm doing?" His French so rapid-fire, Linda had to translate as he was speaking.
"Then how do you explain the cracks?"
"I don't know why it cracked! I replaced the foundations myself!" But LeGrais refused to meet their eyes.
Linda leaned in.
"If you let us help you, the damage to your professional reputation will be minimal." The contractor sprang up, pacing about the room while unleashing a string of curses needing no translation.
"This is going to take longer than we thought." Gregory brooded on the ride back to their hotel.
But Linda was in no hurry to return to Mark, or to their cold modern townhouse in London. She liked this medieval city, its twenty-seven wooden waterwheels still spinning in the river's wake, though no longer hooked up to mills. Moss clung to the stone houses, directing rivulets of rainwater into grooves worn in the pavement from centuries of moisture. The constant mist that hung in the air softened the hard lines of the horizon.
Their car passed a sign reading "Musée de la Poupée." Its windows were half-shuttered, but before they turned the corner, she could make out the dusty forms of dolls perched in the window.
That night Linda laid awake in her hotel room, staring at the doll she'd propped up on her nightstand. Its single eye returned her gaze, seeming to drink her in. Linda hesitated, then reached across to deliberately turn the doll's face away from her, towards the wall.
The sudden soft knocking at the door made her jump, until she heard Gregory's low voice outside it.
"Linda? It's me. Are you awake?"
She held her breath, paralyzed with indecision. Just when she'd finally decided to get up and open the door, she heard the muffed squeak of the wooden floorboards in the hall as he padded back to his own room next door. She felt strangely relieved, and settled back into her pillow, glancing at the doll again.
The doll's head was back as it was before, staring at her.
Linda's heart began to pound. She reminded herself to breathe, but before she knew what she was doing, she'd leapt up, grabbed the doll and threw it in her suitcase. After a moment, she closed the suitcase lid for good measure. Forcing a laugh at herself, she returned to bed, and this time slept like the dead.
She retraced the car's path the next morning, carrying the wooden doll in her arms. The Doll Museum was doing a brisk business with the tourists, but Linda wasn't there for the exhibits.
In the back office she found the proprietor, stooped over her embroidery. The old woman's name was Claire, and the museum's entire collection belonged to her.
Claire explained how she'd lived in Isle Sur L'Vaucluse her whole life, as Linda tried not to stare at the woman's humpback, at the years of pain it implied.
"I've always loved dolls," Claire told her, as she caressed the porcelain faces. "It's as if I knew that they'd be the only children I'd ever have." Blinking back an unexpected stinging in her eyes, Linda laid her doll on the desk.
"Have you ever seen one like this?"
Claire examined the wooden doll with medicinal efficiency, turning it this way and that, checking the rusty hinges linking limbs and head to body. She kept it at arm's length, the way you might a stray cat.
"This is no doll," she at last told Linda. "It's a substitute." At first Linda thought she'd misheard the woman.
"A substitute... for what?"
The doll collector pushed the doll back into Linda's hands.
"This town never forgot the old ways. It has its secrets, something an a city-person wouldn't understand."
"Please. I'm very interested in your town's folklore."
"In Isle Sur L'Vaucluse, we have no folklore. We have only shame." Linda had trouble following Claire's French, spoken quickly and coldly. She asked the proprietor to elaborate. Claire turned away, grabbing a pen and paper.
"Let them explain it to you."
The woman jotted down an address and shoved it in Linda's direction without meeting her curious gaze. "Now Madame, if you'll excuse me."
She left Linda alone in the office with the doll, its head lolling on the desktop.
Outside in the streets, children laughed.
"Why the sudden interest in antiques?" Linda had shown Gregory the slip of paper with the address on it over lunch. "There's just something so romantic about it, don't you think? An old town secret, a mysterious doll?"
She didn't really have to ask if he'd come with her. After all, Gregory hadn't hired her for her civil engineering degree.
The sun was dipping below the high granite wall when they arrived at the address's wrought iron gates. A tarinshed plaque designated this the former site of the convent of Les Pénitents Gris-- The Grey Penitents. Linda rang the bell and after a while, a young woman wearing a scarf around her hair came to greet them.
They followed the nun down the quickly-darkening courtyard path, lined with hooded statues whose draped robes were so lifelike that Linda had to touch their hems to assure herself they were in fact stone. The dark holes where their eyes should have been watched the three of them pass by.
"Is it just me," Gregory muttered, "or does it look like they're wearing KKK hats?" The nun overheard and glanced back, disdain in her voice.
"The hoods were to ensure their good works remained anonymous, untainted by the sin of vanity. The Grey Sisters were devoted to charity-- helping the sick, feeding the poor." She gestured to the stone building looming ahead of them. "This used to be an orphanage, before the order was dissolved in the 18th century. Today it is the headquarters for our nonprofit foundation."
Inside the air was one of worn-down efficiency. Women of all ages sat at desks or spoke on the phone within their cubicles. Linda felt oddly disappointed by its bright modernity. What am I doing here? she wondered. Before she could apologize for wasting the nun's time, a heavy-set matron rose from her desk to shake their hands.
"Claire told me you would be by," the Mother Superior said. Her accented English was no-nonsense. "She said you had something to show me."
Linda unwrapped the figuring from the hotel towel in which she'd swaddled it, and laid it upon the Mother Superior's desk.
The woman's breath caught in her throat.
"Wherever did you find it?"
"Floating in the Vaucluse, near the piers of the old bridge."
When the Mother heard this, she quickly pulled the white towel up over the doll's face; as if it were a corpse in miniature.
"Come with me."
Linda and Gregory exchanged glances then followed her out of the offices, and into an older, locked-off wing of the building.
"We can no longer afford to heat the entire site," she apologized. Sure enough, as the Mother Superior flicked light switches dating from before the War, Gregory and Linda could see their breath.
They found themselves within a disused chapel, its wooden altar ornately carved with cherubs and saints.
At first Linda didn't understand, but then she caught sight of the ringlets cascading down the oiled mahogany backs of the angels.
"It's the same as the doll!" The matronly woman nodded. "The Monsignor of the Grey Penitents was renowned for his talent. Before he died, he set himself an unusual penance-- to continue carving this altar until his last day on God's earth. This was all his doing-- it took him thirty-one years." She waved her hand at the exquisite woodwork. Linda ran her fingers lightly over a year inscribed in the mahogany, "1799."
"Is the doll really so old?" The Mother smiled.
"In France, two hundred years is only yesterday."
In her tiny library, which must surely have been a monk's cell at one point, the Mother poured them both tea. Linda warmed her hands over the steam and leaned in to bathe her face in its aroma.
"Claire called the doll a 'substitute.' Do you know what she meant?"
The Mother Superior sucked her teeth, as if she hoped it wouldn't come to this. "Some rumors never seem to die amongst the elderly of this village. Stories, mind you-- nothing more." When she'd held their gaze long enough to reassure herself that they understood, the woman continued. "You have heard of the bridges of Bremen, and of Arta? Or the bridge on the River Drina? These bridges all have tales attached to them. Ours has one as well."
Linda tried for lighthearted. "The only bridge story I know is 'Three Billy Goats Gruff.'"
The Mother turned her watery blue eyes on Linda.
"This bridge's story is no fairytale."
The Mother took a book from the shelves and opened it to a dog-eared page. A yellowing woodcut print of a castle under construction, surrounded by peasants. Inscribed underneath the image, were the French words: Pain, Sang, Chandelle.
"'Bread, blood, candle?' What does it mean?" Gregory peered over Linda's shoulder, as the Mother Superior turned the page, revealing another woodcut of the castle's foundation stone and within it, a person, curled up around a single lit candlestick.
"It refers to the foundation sacrifice. Ritual immurement, Monsieur."
"Immurement-- you mean like that Poe story? Where the man was walled up in the wine cellar?"
"'For the love of God, Montresor,'" Linda murmured.
"The chosen victim was given a piece of bread and a single lighted candle before being built into the foundations of the building."
"But-- that's horrible!" Linda felt the Mother's watery gaze turn towards her, and glanced away.
"Such things have been done since the beginnings of civilization itself. It was thought their spirit would live on after their body died, to forever protect the structure against the forces of nature."
Gregory grimaced. "Next you're going to tell us this was a considered a great honor, right?"
"On the contrary. Even then, such things were, how you say-- 'taboo.' It had to be someone no one would miss-- a prostitute perhaps, or an unwanted child."
Linda recoiled as the Mother closed the book with a snap.
"The practice fell out of favor after the Middle Ages, but for centuries after, masons would still bury a symbolic figurine within the foundations of large projects-- for good luck."
"They were still doing this, when your bridge was constructed?" Gregory sounded dubious, but Linda grabbed his arm.
"The doll could have been dislodged during the renovations-- when Monsieur LeGrais blasted out the central pillars!"
"Those who might know, have been dead for centuries." The Mother Superior placed the book back on the shelf, in between a copy of the Bible and an old tome titled "Le Liste des Innocents." "Better that it remain a story, no?"
The Mother walked them back to their car in silence. Linda knew she had one chance to ask this woman something that lingered on the tip of her tongue, but her mind felt sluggish. She couldn't grasp what it was that hovered on the outskirts of her consciousness, and before she knew it, the silhouette of the woman was receding in the car's rearview mirror. Gregory put his hand, a comforting weight, upon Linda's thigh. In her haze of frustration, she let it remain.
That night, Gregory slipped into Linda's bedroom. Had she left her door unlocked, hoping he would come? She couldn't be sure. He began to kiss the nape of her neck, sending involuntary shivers down her flesh. She turned and intercepted his mouth, kissing him brusquely on the lips then grabbing his hand and wrapping it around her, pulling him close, but giving him her back.
"We have an early morning tomorrow."
Gregory sighed, irritated. But he didn't push for more, allowing her to simply rest, wrapped in his arms. Within moments he was snoring softly into Linda's hair. Still she couldn't sleep-- her insides still ached from the memory of the child she so briefly carried, an ache that had become as familiar as hunger.
The next morning they returned to the contractor's farmhouse, to find it empty. No peat smoke wafted from its chimney; its windows were dark.
"Think the contractor skipped town?"
"I'll scope around the side entrance," Gregory offered. Left alone, Linda followed a small path through the garden gate. The grounds were overgrown with weeds, but held a large gardening shed, where a ruddy-faced woman in an apron was handing out shovels to a line of dirt-encrusted workmen. Linda approached her.
"Pardon me Madame, but we are looking for Monsieur LeGrais--" Upon hearing the contractor's name, the workmen glanced at the older woman and removed their hats.
"He's dead," the woman said simply, then ducked back into the shed.
Confused, Linda followed her inside, to see walls stacked with masonry tools and bags of cement.
"That's impossible. We just saw him Friday!"
"He died Saturday," the woman said, grabbing the last shovel from the shed and pushed past Linda. "We bury him today."
Linda and Gregory watched from a distance as the contractor's wife supervised the hired hands digging her husband's grave. There were no words or tears.
"LeGrais was a religious man," Linda remembered.
"So, shouldn't he be getting buried in a churchyard?" Gregory shrugged. "Maybe backyard burials are the tradition here."
Linda pointed out that the only gravestone in the contractor's backyard was his own. Suddenly Gregory realized what she was driving at.
"Linda, you don't honestly think LeGrais killed himself?"
"We were investigating him. If he were found negligent, LeGrais could have been financially responsible for the entire cost of the renovations. He died because of us."
"There's no way we can know that, not for sure."
"Maybe we can." That's when Gregory noticed that Linda's eyes had locked on the spire of the town church.
The priest met them at the church door.
"LeGrais? Yes, he came for confession, right before he shot himself."
"And how did he look?"
"Drunk, God's honest truth. Raving about nightmares, that the devil was after him. I told him to lay off the whiskey-- he'd been hitting the bottle ever since those first cracks appeared in the bridge."
Linda probed further. "And after he confessed, LeGrais went right home?"
The priest scratched his beard. "Not right home."
He explained how the church's groundskeeper had caught LeGrais digging his own grave in their cemetery in the dead of night.
On impulse, Linda asked to see where LeGrais had been digging, and the priest shrugged, handing her the key to the churchyard gate.
The cold morning dew soaked her socks within moments as she walked amidst the headstones. She saw the spot right away-- the freshly-churned soil standing out amidst the fresh grass.
"Odd," she murmured, and pointed to the far corner, where a series of "LeGrais" headstones could be clearly made out. "Why would he dig his own grave, so far away from his family's plot?"
Gregory rubbed his arms. "Who cares? Let's get back for tea, this place gives me goose-pimples."
On their way out, something in the dirt caught her eye-- a rusty hand-forged nail. She had just picked it up when Gregory plucked it from her hand, chucking it far into the bushes.
"Sorry love. But the last thing you need is tetanus."
Her cheeks burned with anger as she turned and stalked away.
"Where are you going?!" She didn't turn around or stop walking. "Linda!"
"I need some time alone."
"What about tea--?!"
But she was already gone.
She rambled the narrow stone streets until the sun began to set, finding herself at last drawn back to the church. Its wooden doors were now propped open, a warm glow emanating from its windows.
Linda sat in the back behind the sparse crowd, letting the Mass's incantations wash over her. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been inside a church, unless it was to oversee a renovation. A shadow moved in the front pews. The black-clothed Madame LeGrais gracelessly made her way up the aisle, passing by Linda. If she recognized Linda she gave no sign, and that was what made her jump up from her seat and follow the widow out into the street.
"Pardon me Madame. We spoke yesterday?" The woman slowed her pace but didn't turn to acknowledge her. "I just wanted to pass on my sincere condolences." Madame LeGrais nodded, curt. Feeling the familiar tug of guilt, Linda found herself continuing. "I hope our investigation of your husband didn't contribute in any way to his death."
Hearing this, the widow turned to look at Linda and laughed, her grey teeth locked in a rictus of mirth. When she'd caught her breath, she grabbed Linda hard by the arm.
"Silly girl. Not even God could save Thierry." She gestured to the church and its grounds, "He came here to end the visions, but it did no good. She drove him mad, you know. The dead should stay dead." And with that she spat on the ground, and kept walking. Speechless, Linda watched her go.
That night Linda dreamed she was walking barefoot through the churchyard when a small girl, four or five and dressed in a long white nightshirt, appeared at her side. The girl's dark curly hair cascaded to her shoulders, tied back with a white ribbon.
She took Linda's hand as they walked to the spot where LeGrais had tried to dig his own grave-- only this time the hole was deep and gaping, filled with black river water. She looked up at Linda and spoke in perfect French. Mother, take me home. Don't leave me here in the dark.
The river water suddenly bubbled up from the hole, coursing over their ankles, as the little girl placed a rusty nail in Linda's palm and closed her fingers over it.
Linda awoke with a start, disoriented. There was a smell like an extinguished wick in her hotel room, and she sat up, feeling certain there was a fire. But in the moonlight-flooded room, all appeared normal... Until she looked down.
Her sheets were soaked in blood, enough that it dripped down the bed-posts, pooling onto the floor. Before she could help herself, she screamed.
A sleep-addled Gregory came bursting in moments later, to find Linda pulling the bloodied sheets off the bed, throwing them frantically onto the ground in a sodden pile.
"What happened? I heard a scream!" Linda fell weeping into his arms.
"The blood Greg, oh my god the blood--!" She could barely form coherent sentences, too shaken to explain that her body was broken, haunted by a child that never drew breath.
Gregory quickly snapped on the light, revealing her room as it was. The sheets piled on the ground were as pristine as her unblemished nightgown. He exhaled in relief.
"You had a dream, love. A bad dream." She shook her head, confused. Gregory picked the doll up off the floor, where it had fallen, and placed it in her arms. Linda held it at arm's length, wide-eyed, disoriented.
"But-- she was in the suitcase!"
"Don't tell me you've taken up sleepwalking." Gregory smiled at her, amused. She wanted to deny it, but knew the alternative sounded even crazier. He put an arm around her shoulders.
"Why don't you let me make you a cup of something warm, and can tell me all about your nightmare."
In his room, she clutched her teacup with shaking fingers.
"It happened just a few months ago." Gregory quietly digested what she'd just told him.
"I didn't know that you'd been--"
"Neither did I at first," Linda quickly interjected. "There was no morning sickness." He cleared his throat, awkward.
"I meant, I didn't know you and Mark were still..." His hands made a limp, meaningless gesture.
"Gregory. He is my husband."
He didn't like this, but she was past caring. "I've been having these dreams since we got here. But this is the first time I remembered it. The little girl, she was so... lonely."
Gregory stared at her a long moment, then got up from the table, turning away.
"You're obviously suffering some post-traumatic stress from your miscarriage-"
"Please don't insult me with your armchair psychology-"
"Perhaps bringing you on this trip was a bad idea."
"You're punishing me."
"No. I'm trying to take care of you."
"That's not your job." She stood up. "Greg, perhaps we should take a break for a while."
He turned to face her, a dark look in his eye.
Linda started to edge towards the door, when suddenly Gregory reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back.
"A break from what? We haven't done anything, you never let us do anything--" She struggled to get out from his grasp, but instead he pulled her closer to him.
"Let go of me!"
He spoke in a guttural voice. "I could have you if I wanted you. Right now, right here." He jerked his jaw at his own rumpled sheets. "Maybe this is what you want me to do all along, make the decision for you. Is that what you--- oof!"
He doubled over in pain as Linda's knee met his groin. Sometimes her height came in handy.
She slammed the door on her way out.
Linda avoided him at breakfast, and instead returned to the churchyard. She half expected to see her footprints revealed in the dew, left over from her half-remembered dream. But in the bright light of morning, a gardener was already seeding grass over the churned-up soil.
Another difference: now, an ancient, splintered barrel leaned against the low retaining wall. As she passed it, she stopped abruptly. Rusty nails protruded from the top of the barrel, as if they'd been hastily hammered in.
"Monsieur, what is this?"
The gardener explained that the previous evening's rains had revealed it beneath the mud.
"LeGrais didn't dig deep enough to keep the dogs from digging it up. For the bones, you know."
Squatting down, she peered through the barrel's broken slats. What she saw inside made her breath catch, and she felt a feeling like falling.
A dirty white ribbon.
LeGrais hadn't been digging a grave at all, she realized. At least, not his own. She drove him mad, you know, the old woman's words echoed in her eyes. The dead should stay dead.
Suddenly, Linda remembered what she had wanted to ask the Mother Superior.
Linda arrived at the Convent of the Grey Penitents, breathless. At the gates she suddenly doubled over, as icy waves of pain radiated from her mid-section. What felt like warm blood began to dribble down the inside of her inner thighs, staining her dress dark. Weak and light-headed, Linda clutched the stone pillars, as once again the silk-scarved nun approached. When Linda crumpled to the ground, the nun hiked up her skirt and ran.
She awoke in the Mother Superior's library, where she'd been laid out on the small chaise lounge. Two of the Mother's brood hovered over her, as Linda scrambled onto her forearms to look down at her dress. She couldn't decide whether she was relieved or terrified, when she saw it was as unspoiled as the sheets.
So this is what it feels like, to lose one's mind.
"Mademoiselle?" Flushing, Linda waved off the nuns' concerned inquiries.
"I just need some water please. And perhaps a warm washcloth." They were out of her sight as soon as the words left her lips, just as she'd hoped.
Linda rose unsteadily to her feet, and perused the bookshelf, pulling down the book that she had noticed upon her first visit. "Le Liste des Innocents."
She opened the tome, and flipped backwards through the roster's yellowing pages until she reached the year 1781. The handwritten list of orphans took up half the page-- only one was listed "morte," --deceased. Isabelle Des Sants. "Of the saints," was the church-given last name shared by half the orphaned children on the roster. Perhaps Isabelle had been dropped on their doorstep. Or perhaps her mother had died in childbirth. But Linda knew one thing for sure-- Isabelle's mother had not been there the day the stonemasons came for her.
"I figured you'd be back." She felt the Mother Superior's presence in the doorway. Linda responded without glancing up from the book.
"There was something I wanted to ask you, Mother. What was your Monsignor-- the one who carved the altar-- doing penance for?" The Mother stared at Linda a long moment.
"I think Madame, we both know the answer to that." She pushed past Linda, and pulled down another book, this one a leather journal. "The Monsignor's diary." She opened it to a page, and handed it to Linda. The entry was hurried, the French written in a shaky hand. Linda's eyes scanned the page.
Four men came late at night, and rang the bell. We hadn't expected them for another week or more. They took the child from her bed,
dressed only in her nightclothes.
I pleaded with them to take the doll I'd prepared instead, a practice adopted by so many of their kind. They spent so much time
admiring its craftsmanship, I thought the girl might have a chance.
I pleaded with them to take the doll I'd prepared instead, a practice adopted by so many of their kind. They spent so much time admiring its craftsmanship, I thought the girl might have a chance.
Linda read on, and felt a chill running through her like an electrical current.
But my pleas went unheard. In the end, child and doll went into the stone, together.
The Monsignor described how the masons placed Isabelle in a barrel along with the doll, a stub of flickering candle, and a piece of bread. Then they hammered the lid shut.
I think of her, every moment of every day since. I carve, and carve, and carve until my palms bleed like the Savior's, but
still it is not enough.em>
Still her face watches me, in the dark.
Still her face watches me, in the dark.
"The bridge's foreman found the bones. LeGrais tried to bury them in the churchyard, to put Isabelle's spirit to rest. Shouldn't that have worked?"
The Mother shrugged. "She 'rested' perfectly well within that bridge for three hundred years. It is only now that the bridge is in pieces, that her spirit wanders."
Linda's cell phone chose that moment to ring. It was Gregory, asking her where she was-- they had a dinner meeting with the new contractors. She assured him she was on her way.
Gregory was coolly distant to her at the restaurant, but she didn't care. She shook hands with the new contractors and refused to meet Gregory's eyes, which burned into hers from across the table. Pleasantries were exchanged, deals were signed, but in the back of her mind was a constant white noise. Like the sound of river water, thrumming against stone.
It wasn't until they had raised congratulatory glasses of sweet desert wine that Linda suddenly felt a clenching in her guts, a cruel twisting sensation, followed by a sticky warmth between her thighs. She involuntarily gasped and glanced down, seeing her yellow skirt blossom into dark red. Please, not again. Gregory's eyes narrowed in concern.
"Are you feeling alright? You look pale."
The two contractors turned to look at her and she forced a smile. It's not real. This isn't happening. Even the miscarriage hadn't been this violent. The blood began to drip off the upholstered chair and onto the carpet between her feet.
"If you'll just excuse me a moment, gentlemen." She got up, light-headed and unsteady, trying not to feel like the entire restaurant was silently staring at her. It's only in your head. Yet somehow she was certain if she looked back, she'd see a crimson trail on the carpet.
Linda staggered into the small bathroom, bolting the door, her legs now slick with blood. She batted on the faucet then hastily pulled up her skirt as she hunched over the toilet, wracked with pain. She barely heard the knocking on the bolted bathroom door, as Gregory asked her if she was okay.
"Go away!" She tried to staunch the flow with handfuls of toilet paper, but they were soaked almost instantly.
Her eyes widened, certain her sanity had at last abandoned her, as her fingers felt something dangling from between her legs. She wrapped it around two trembling fingers and pulled, staring down in horror as inch after inch of long silk ribbon, stained scarlet from the blood, emerged from between her legs.
"Linda, open this door!" Gregory was pounding on the door now, but the sound of rushing water grew louder in her ears as she collapsed to the cold tile floor.
Above her, the sink was now overflowing, but not with tap water. What was pouring onto the ground in sheets around her was river water, murky with algae. Water-bugs and salamanders skittered across the shallow surface of the pools gradually forming on the bathroom floor. Soft moss pillowed her head, as unseen frogs chirruped her into unconsciousness.
Her first sensation was of fluorescent lights, of masked doctors peering over her, speaking urgently in French. Could she speak French? She was too tired to remember. Linda heard the word for blood spoken over and over again -- sang -- and the image of a crust of bread and a stub of candle arose in her mind. Then the darkness took her again.
"Ms. Ferguson?" The doctor's voice cut into her dream state, as he thrust the curtains open in her small hospital room. The sunlight streamed in and Linda lifted a hand to her eyes, feeling a tug of the IV inserted under the skin.
"It appears you experienced a ruptured cyst. It can be very painful."
So it had been real after all. The mortification set in. The carpets... oh God. Linda noticed flowers by her bedside, as well as the doll propped up beside it, its one eye, always watching.
"Your colleague dropped them off earlier this morning. Would you like me to call your husband?"
"No, I'll call him myself, later. Can you tell me more about this... cyst?"
The doctor spoke in clinical English, barely a trace of an accent. Linda's hormones were highly elevated, as they would be if she were pregnant. Linda explained about her miscarriage.
"Yes, your colleague told me. But it was months ago, no?" He thought it strange her levels were still so elevated, and asked for Linda to return for more tests. She made agreeable noises, whatever she had to say to be released from this place.
She returned to the hotel to find several messages from Mark. She deleted them, unheard, and switched on the grainy television. Gregory knocked on her door. She ignored him. "Linda, I know you're in there. Can't we talk about this face to face?" She got up, and spoke to him through the closed door.
"I'm going home tomorrow."
"Consider this my resignation." In response to his stunned silence, she turned the television volume up as loud as it would go, until she could just barely make out his curses as he stomped back to his room.
That night Linda tossed and turned under the hotel's stiff sheets. At last she could fight it no more, and went to her suitcase, taking out the doll. She cradled it close to her in bed, breathing in its distant smell of varnish, and earth. She tried to imagine Isabella in the dark, clutching this same doll, in the belly of the river.
She thought about how she and Isabelle served the same purpose. We make sure things don't fall down. She managed it for three hundred years. She thought of Isabelle's spirit, dislodged now from the foundations, aimless. Mother, take me home.
The whisper was almost lost within the rustle of the sheets. In the dark, Linda felt something shift in her arms. She opened her eyes.
In place of the doll, a small girl was now curled up against her, skin nearly translucent in the moonlight, wet curls dripping onto the sheets. Linda's hands fumbled for the light, knocking the lamp over with a crash.
She was alone, but the sheets were damp. She spoke into the emptiness with a voice that sounded stronger than she felt.
"What do you want?"
Silence answered her. Yet an idea was forming in Linda's mind. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't shake it.
What Linda did next surprised even her: she called her husband. His voice was groggy on the phone. Once she assured him she was all right, Mark asked with a weariness that had nothing to do with the late hour, how the trip was going. It took Linda a long time to respond.
"I think there's something I have to do before I can come home. Something that I can't tell you about." She listened to the steady sound of Mark's breath on the other end of the line, before she continued. "...I know this sounds crazy, but if I don't try to do this thing, I think I might lose my mind."
A long silence, as if Mark was fighting a battle within himself.
"Then you have to do it," Mark said. "I'll be here, whenever you're ready to come home. To come back to me."
She smiled, remembering this was his way. Steadfast, faithful, unwavering in his belief that everything would work out in the end.
There was a downpour that night, but she was grateful for the shock of cold water running down her back as she rowed the borrowed skiff up to the bridge's central pillar. Anything to keep her rooted to the real world, to keep her mind from examining too closely the task she'd set for herself.
Linda hoisted the barrel out of skiff with one hand, the other clutching the doll. She began to ascend the moss-covered stone steps leading to the small platform in the center of the river. Here, the rain-swollen rush of water slopped over foundation stones, worn smooth by the centuries.
She slipped as she made her way, teetering a moment on the edge. Her will teetered as well-- the water beckoning her to jump into its oblivion. Her balance kicked in at the last moment, and she clung panting to the wall of the abutment.
Do I have to do this? I could still turn back...
Then she recalled the widow's words. She drove him mad, you know.
She did know. That this was her last chance.
Determined, Linda took an item out of her pack-- a crowbar, borrowed from Monsieur LeGrais's garden shed. She quickly located the weakest portion of the cracked plaster, and began to dig. Pieces of fresh plaster broke away as small paving stones crumbled in piles around her feet. It was easier than she'd dared to hope.
It took less than an hour to gauge a hole several feet in diameter through the wall of the pier. When she'd finished, she took out an electric torch, shining it down into the dark, but it couldn't penetrate the murk at the bottom. Wherever Isabelle had been put to rest, it was deep.
For a moment Linda considered just dropping the barrel in and being done with it. But she couldn't bear to think of the little girl's bones shattering on hard stone. She had wanted to bring Isabelle peace. A gentle return to the only home, the only purpose, the child had ever known.
She tied a rope around the barrel and lowered it in, leaning as far into the hole as she could, trying her best to keep it from banging against the sides of the steep stone walls. A flash of lightning briefly illuminated bottom of the hollow pier, and Linda gasped.
A pale figure in white stared up at her from the bottom of the pit.
Linda screamed staggering backwards, when--
She felt a tremendous shove from behind her!
Then she was falling-- that familiar feeling, only now it was real, it was happening...
A sickening crunch jolted her back to reality, as pain spring up through her ribs. She lay heaped at the bottom of the ancient foundation, somewhere deep below the water level.
She curled into fetal position. It was all the space would allow her-- four feet by four feet wide, the stone walls were thicker than she'd guessed.
With ribs broken and God knows what else, Linda could barely breathe deeply enough to call for help, but when she did she realized her voice would never carry over the sound of the river and the storm.
In the morning someone will come, she thought. Someone will spot the boat, and the hole in the bridge, and come find me.
The whisper of a voice widened Linda's eyes. She gazed upwards and there, ghostly in the moonlight, she saw Isabelle's face again. Only this time she was at the hole far above her, peering down at Linda.
"Help me, Isabelle."
Isabelle ducked momentarily out of view, and when she returned, she had two paving stones clasped in her hands. Linda watched, confused, as Isabelle laid the rocks back in place.
The vision paid her no mind, working quickly, efficiently, piling the rocks one on top of the other, wedging them into the hole Linda had so recently carved out.
How is she doing this? This must be a dream-- it must be. But the hole was filling up, steadily closing the eclipse of pale light that reached Linda in the pit. Needles of moonlight shone through the gaps between the stones, but only needles. It's as if she knows how each stone fits together...
But of course she did. She'd had three hundred years to study them.
"Why are you doing this?! I just wanted to help you!" For the love of God, Montresor. But the girl was already out of sight, sliding the last stone into place.
The darkness nearly complete, Linda broke into gasping sobs. She found all she wanted was someone, anyone, to comfort her, so she wouldn't feel so alone.
That's when it hit Linda. Bringing her home isn't enough. She wants me to stay with her, forever. She felt a small, cold hand grasp hers in the near-dark.
The bridge's repair concluded the following year. Gregory took the Eurostar back to Isle Sur L'Vaucluse for a photo-op with the new contractors as they broke a bottle of champagne over the bridge's foundation stone. The lead engineer told Gregory that this time the foundations were holding firm, in spite of some shoddy masonry in one section of the pier. They'd plastered right over it.
"This bridge will stand for three more centuries, I guarantee it."
Gregory had tried to contact Linda to apologize in previous months, but it had been useless. She wasn't answering her cell phone, and when Gregory called her house, Linda's husband told him in a broken voice that he thought his wife had left him for another man. Apparently he'd long suspected that she'd taken a lover.
"She said she felt like she was going crazy, that she needed to try something new. What else could it be? She hasn't even come by to pick up her things." Gregory remembered murmuring his condolences before hanging up, too cowardly to tell Linda's husband of their own near-affair.
Gregory gazed down at the river, tossing a pebble in to rupture his muddied reflection into a mass of ripples.
Abruptly his focus shifted, as something appeared in the water beneath his reflection. He squinted, then squatted down and pulled the object from the water, his breath catching in his throat. Coated with algae now and missing an arm, the doll was unmistakable.
He didn't know why he felt a chill just then, or why the calling of the river-birds sounded so much like a woman's cry.
About the Author
Nicole Perlman is a screenwriter who has written for Universal, Fox 2000, National Geographic Films, Marvel Studios, and Disney. She tends to write about space or scientists or sometimes scientists-in-space, and therefore decided it was time to take the obvious next step and write a ghost story about ritualized human sacrifice.