Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Correspondence Between the Governess and the Attic

OPENING

The changeling hides in the window seat. On one side of her is glass, gauzy with rain. On the other, a thick curtain. November whistles through the crack in the window frame, but she dares not move. In this house she is a creeping, persecuted thing. Best if they don’t see her.

She opens the book. Reading, she knows, is dangerous: none of the books in the house are hers, nothing is hers, and the family will hold this small act against her. But reading is a better escape than none at all.

Boards creak. The changeling looks up from the book’s eerie paintings. She tries to breathe without noise. But she is only a frail orphan, without friends or magic, and she is not hidden well enough.

The curtain is pulled aside. Together, you are dragged into the beginning of the story.

* * * *

THE RED ROOM

For fighting back, they punish her. The orphan pounds at the door of the haunted bedroom. Her screams claw down the hallway, but no one will save her.

She dies her first death in the red room.

There will be others.

* * * *

THE INTERVIEW

Afterward, the girl is interrogated, to see if she has learned her lesson:

“And what must you do to avoid hell, child?”

“I must keep in good health, and never die.”

This gives the family pause. Only yesterday, the orphan shrank away from them. Now she is upright, glittering, dangerous. Death will do that to some people.

“I am not deceitful,” the changeling says. “If I were, I should say I loved you. But I am glad you are no relations of mine. If anyone ever asks how you treated me, I shall say the thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.”

This will not do.

* * * *

THE SCHOOL

The family washes their hands of her in a respectable way: They send her to school. This is not a clean, well-lit institution but a prison, where unwanted children stand in rigid lines and faint from hunger. The servants bind the corpses in cheap linen and line them up in the courtyard for collection.

The changeling’s fury sustains her. When the headmaster singles her out for abuse, she glares at him. She will not die, not again, not so soon.

She is befriended by Helen Burns, a girl with a saintly smile and a red cough that will martyr her before the story is even underway. Burns counsels the embrace of suffering, and dies (beautifully) to illustrate her point.

The changeling is not convinced. She scratches the walls of her prison, searching for a way out. A kind ancestral fairy drops the solution on her pillow: She will become a governess.

* * * *

THORNFIELD

Jane (let’s call her Jane now, everyone else does)—

Jane Errant sets out for a house called Thornfield, where she is to tutor a clockwork French girl who sings stuttering arias.

The housekeeper claims the house has no ghosts in it. The changeling chooses to believe her, although she already knows that the servants laugh too loudly and that strange footsteps sound in the attic. As she lies awake at night, the attic creeps into the governess’s thoughts, just as it creeps into yours. Dreams of yellow wallpaper, and women who will not be caged.

* * * *

THE CLOCKWORK GIRL

Adele, unlike Jane, is ideal.

At eight years old she is already pretty, with bright blue eyes that are empty of thought. Her golden hair falls in ringlets, and when she sings she tilts her head just so and shakes her curls as her mother taught her. She smiles frequently at men, displaying teeth that are white and straight.

If you let her, she will sing for you. She will recite poems that she doesn’t understand, raising her hand in the places her mother taught her. When she has finished, she will sink into a curtsey and look up demurely through her fringe of golden hair.

In France, her audience pretended to find this sweet; the gentlemen watched her with eager eyes as she danced for them like a music-box ballerina. Afterward she was sent to sit on their knees. Sometimes in their laps.

Adele dislikes the governess’s lessons, for they are full of big words and numbers that clatter noisily in her head. But she likes the governess well enough, though she is a plain, mousy thing with a thoughtful face. At eight years old, Adele already knows that women should never be thoughtful. They should be pretty and work hard to catch men’s eyes and keep them.

It takes a lot of concentration not to think of the footsteps she hears in the attic, but Adele has been practicing the art of thoughtlessness for a long time. Her mother began the clockwork process—to aid Adele’s dancing, she said—and now Adele has almost completed it on her own. Sometimes, when the ghosts in the attic threaten to dig their way into her mind, Adele likes to think about her clockwork body, how solid it is, how quiet and regular. Her body will last forever, and unlike people, it will never abandon her.

The noise in the attic starts again, but Adele turns away. She places her hand over her heart, feeling its fleshy beats thud disgustingly against her ribcage. Soon, she thinks, her transformation will be complete. Then she will be perfect. Then she will be loved.

* * * *

THE ATTIC

It is time we speak of the attic, this space around which Thornfield’s stories turn. Thornfield is a fairy-tale prison, after all; its thorny walls must guard something. But do they guard it from the world or guard the world from it?

The changeling lies awake in her virginal governess’s bed, listening to the attic. Are those footsteps she hears real, or figments of her imagination?

One night, tentatively, she writes out a note, and slips it through a crack into the attic: Who are you?

Excellent question. Sadly, it goes unanswered for weeks. During this time Adele lisps her lessons and the governess is bored. Idly, she plans a trip to the crossroads.

One day she finds a note pinned to her door. The pin is long and sharp; its head is red as blood. The creased paper contains a single word: Myself.

The governess writes a longer note, filling the margins with carefully phrased questions. She never receives an answer. The attic has already told her all she needs to know.

* * * *

THE CROSSROADS

At midnight the changeling goes to the crossroads. She puts her delicate hands to the dank, pressed earth and digs a hole as deep as her forearm. She takes out the charm—a simple thing made of rags and rabbit’s blood, like the ones her nurse used to make—and drops it down.

There, the changeling thinks. Now do something.

Nothing happens.

The changeling lets a breath out she did not know she was holding. She formed the charm to ask for a change, a breath of excitement in a life fast becoming dreary. But of course nothing will happen. Her nurse’s tales were fantasy only.

Then the hair rises on the back of her arms. Her sweat crisps into cold jewels of ice and skitters to the ground. It pools around her accusingly.

Looking up, the changeling sees a lone dog rushing toward her, eyes gleaming like underwater coins. Her nurse told her stories about dogs like this, fairy guardians of solitary ways.

She feels a surge of fear. Is this another beginning for her? A rough hand come to drag her into yet another story?

The dog rushes past her. It’s his master—and hers—who stops. Falls, actually, tumbling from his horse with a clatter of bones and ugly deeds. It’s up to the changeling to help him to his feet again, a dark man with gloomy manners.

If he had been handsome, if he had smiled, if he had treated her kindly—this story would be different.

She is used to rudeness, and to the insults he hurls in her direction. She offers him a hand and helps lift him up, into a story she—mistakenly—believes unchanged.

* * * *

THE SECOND INTERVIEW

“When you came on me in the Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse. I am not sure yet. Who are your parents?”

The governess tells her master the truth: She has none she can remember.

“And so you were waiting for your people when you sat on that stile? Did I break through one of your rings, that you spread that damned ice on the causeway?”

The changeling feels an unaccountable chill at Rochester’s words. Does he know? But see how perfectly she answers, mimicking her master’s ironic tone:

The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago.”

The lie looks well on her, reflecting in the light of her preternatural eyes.

* * * *

BLANCHE

A party of gentlefolk has arrived at the great house. The servants scurry through Thornfield’s dark chambers, trying to scrub away layers of Gothic with harsh brown soap. The governess can think only of the woman she heard talked about: Blanche Ingram, the lady the servants say her master will marry.

On the night of the party, the governess sees her rival for the first time: a woman white as bleached marble. Blanche has an imperial air about her, the crackle of repressed power. She is careful not to touch the governess, not even with the hem of her gown.

Oddly, there is something about Blanche that reminds the changeling of herself. Ignorant of all but the most basic instincts of the fey-blooded, she cannot tell what it is. She only knows that Blanche’s power is to be respected; that her anger will make itself felt even at great distances. She knows, also, that Blanche has inherited a feral cruelty that the changeling herself does not possess.

Oh, thinks the governess, as Blanche passes by. Is this the kind of woman her master likes?

The changeling has learned to love her master (poor thing). And why not? In his rough way, he has treated her kindly. At least, he has been interested in her, and to those who are used to being ignored, interest is a kindness.

Besides, Thornfield is a dreary place. There is little else for a young woman to do here but fall in love or go insane. The changeling chose the first option (she thinks). She cannot unlove him now, merely because he has ceased to notice her.

* * * *

THE FORTUNE TELLER

An old gypsy is at the gate, hissing prophecies. She offers to tell everyone’s fortunes, if the servants will let her cross the threshold.

The guests summon her into the hall—a stooped cipher of a woman, bundled like a leper—and give her a private room to interview them in.

One by one the gentlefolk go in, laughing. They emerge with questions gathering in the creases of their eyes. Blanche comes out and announces that she is leaving; the party has exhausted her. She asks that all due apologies be conveyed to the host.

The governess has not met Blanche’s gaze until now. All night, this fine lady’s eyes swept past her, but now she stares at the governess, and her eyes glitter like cold iron.

The changeling stares back, her face set. Sensing danger, she is stubborn. As Blanche turns to leave, Jane feels the same chill she did at the crossroads. This will not go well, she thinks, but does not know what she is afraid of.

A guest comes and touches her arm. The gypsy woman wants to see her.

* * * *

THE THIRD INTERVIEW

The changeling and the gypsy woman confront each other in a flame-lit room.

“Why don’t you tremble?”

“I’m not cold.”

“Why don’t you turn pale?”

“I’m not sick.”

“Why don’t you consult my art?”

“I’m not silly.”

The gypsy laughs. You are all three, the old woman says. Cold from want of love, sick from desire, and silly for not pursuing it.

The changeling will say nothing to that. The flame flickers in the eye. Perhaps she already detects her master’s face beneath the soot and rags. Perhaps she’s already wondering what game he’s playing.

* * * *

WAITING

After the guests leave: silence.

The servants move about as quietly as they can, cleaning up all traces of the week of parties. The governess wonders at her master’s charade, about the queer games he is playing with her and Blanche Ingram.

Her master is congratulating himself on his cleverness. He thinks he has driven Blanche off with a few well-turned prophecies. But women like Blanche have a way of making their feelings known even after your doors are barred to them, and the changeling fears that Blanche’s power will not be gainsaid.

There are signs. A tree in the garden is blasted by lightning, and afterward the air around its stump smells like roses. The milk left beside the door turns sour. The clouds around Thornfield threaten rain, but no storm arrives.

The changeling can sense the magic in the air, but she has not the least idea how to turn back the curse coiling around them. Someone has set something dreadful in motion, and she does not know what to do.

It occurs to the changeling that she might ask the attic for help, but the thought stirs fear in her. Instinctively, she knows that whatever is locked in the attic is not on her side. It is on nobody’s side but its own. Unleashed, there is no telling what it might do.

* * * *

THE PRECURSOR

Blanche’s curse arrives in the form of another visitor, one who brings the tropical past clinging to his heels. He gives his name as Mason. He comes, he says, from the West Indies.

The West Indies. It’s easy to forget, here in the damp mist of Thornfield, that there’s an empire out there. Its blood brews the coffee at your table. Its ghosts wander your darkness; children whose bones were ground into sugar pound on the wet glass. You can shred their hands on the broken panes, but it will not keep them out—some of them are already inside.

“Mason—the West Indies,” her master repeats. The governess feels chilled, though she does not know why.

* * * *

MIDNIGHT

Something has happened in the attic.

Mason, the newest houseguest, is brought below stairs, his shirt soaked with blood, his pale eyes rolling.

“She said she’d drain my heart,” he tells Rochester. The words stagger down the halls, leaving bloody handprints on the yellow wallpaper.

The changeling is all for going to the attic herself, candlestick in hand, to do . . . what, she could not say. She does not know what to call the strange power seething under her skin, but something dreadful seems to be called for.

As she goes to mount the attic stairs, a servant’s brown arms restrain her. The young woman shakes her head silently. No. This is not a governess’s concern.

There is blood seeping into the floorboards, crawling into the bones of the past. The housekeeper is on her knees, trying to prevent a stain.

Afterward, nobody comments on the incident. It is as though it never happened at all.

The governess resumes her correspondence with the attic. This time her note contains a single word: Why?

A few days later, she receives a reply, left on her pillow as though by an evil fairy. This time the note says simply: You’ll learn.

* * * *

THE PROPOSAL

Her master begins (subtly, he thinks), by asking Jane what she thinks of the house. Of course she must approve of the house: Despite its Gothic appearance, the ghost in the attic, the alleged homicidal impulses of its servants, it is the only home she has. From here it is a short step to approving of the man himself, or so he hopes.

The governess, to her credit, is skeptical. She is in love with him, yes: but he is older than she, richer than she, and is a gentleman. Also, there is the matter of the attic. (She is astute enough not to mention the attic aloud, but she looks meaningfully in the direction of the house. Rochester chooses to ignore her gaze.)

Her master has answers for her: His wealth and age are usually considered good things, and he hates parties, so she will not have to mix much in society.

Eventually, she says yes.

In a fairy tale, the story would now be over. But in the attic, something broods, waiting.

* * * *

THE WEDDING

On the morning of the wedding, the governess wakes with a mound of salt in her mouth. She spits out the white powder—her mouth is dry, so dry—and kicks away the iron horseshoe that someone has left at the foot of her bed. She sits up trembling, enraged.

Her fey self is housed in human flesh, and such weak tricks will not work on her. But the changeling knows she has been threatened. Someone in this house does not wish her well.

She glances askance at the servants who help her with the veil. One of them, perhaps? One of the laughing kitchen girls she called a friend? Or the housekeeper?

The mirror stares at her, its pale face reflecting hers.

She looks like a ghost in her bridal gown, a feathery concoction of silk and lace. Her master chose it for her, and who is Jane to argue? She owns no clothes but those that are handed to her.

Rubbing the glitter of salt from her lips, she tells herself that all will be well. It is only a dress, after all.

* * * *

THE TRAITOR

At the foot of the stairs, Adele tilts her porcelain face up and mouths her words: “It didn’t work.”

There is no answer.

Uncertainly, Adele twists her tiny hands in front of her. The wedding will start soon. As the flowergirl, Adele is expected to perform, and yet she is still imperfect, still flawed.

Desperation makes her bold. “I did what you said,” she tells the attic. “Now you must give me my heart.”

“It is not mine to give.” The attic’s voice is dry, amused. It sounds like dead leaves scraping together. A chill runs up the clockwork girl’s perfectly articulated spine.

Adele licks her lips. “But you promised—”

“I promise many things,” the attic says. “Only time will tell.”

Adele shakes her head. There are so many things she wishes she could say, but her perfect mouth cannot form the words.

* * * *

THE CEREMONY

The wedding guests shuffle as Jane walks in. They are Rochester’s friends, and her veil turns their faces into white blurs.

The priest speaks and the governess tries to listen. Tension is gathering around her. Blanche’s curse is here, standing in the shadows like an unexpected guest. It looks like Mason.

Someone must have said something. Rochester turns to look at Mason. Adele is standing perfectly poised, one graceful hand cupped to her face in a perfect mimicry of shock.

“The groom has another wife,” Mason repeats.

Rochester is furious. He would kill Mason if he could, but this is England, and the wedding guests would be positively shocked.

Angrily he leads the curious and the cynical down the stone path to Thornfield, up that ancient house’s creaking stairs. The governess follows behind, wondering if this is the worst Blanche can do to her.

Then she sees they are to go into the attic. She pauses at the top of the stairs, her skin prickling. Things are about to change. She can feel it.

* * * *

THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC

The governess hears the woman before she sees her. Snarls, thick and guttural, the sounds life makes when it refuses to be stamped out. A lurching, scrabbling figure on the floor, all hair and fingernails. Its look is hateful.

Jane recognizes that look, and the ring of salt that surrounds the woman. She recognizes the horseshoes nailed to the wall. They have kept her here, this fey thing, safely away from their white table cloths and dining sets. The attic rattles with her fury.

Grace Pool, that whispering servant, warns them to take care. “One never knows what she has, sir; she is so cunning. It is not in mortal discretion to fathom her craft.”

Lured, perhaps, by the abjection of the groveling shadow, the gentlemen draw closer, staring the way people do through the bars of a cage. One of them disturbs the salt with the toe of his boot.

Instantly the fairy is at them, desperate for a chance to inflict damage. The magic that curls at her fingertips still blazes power. Her bared teeth are yellow. They draw blood.

They wrestle her down, pin her to the floorboards. Her magic is too tattered to stop them. She moans and hisses into the veins of wood, her bare feet kicking vaguely at the air.

The changeling has never seen one of the pure fey before. There were images, to be sure, memories lurking in her blood, but none of them prepared her for this once-proud creature clawing at floorboards, eyes empty of reason.

Jane almost does not hear her master’s words, but they seep into her mind like a rising tide: “That is my wife,” he explains, rubbing the dark stains on his torn sleeve. “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know. And this is what I wished to have,” (here he lays his hand on the governess’s shoulder): “this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon.”

Jane shudders, almost shrugs the hand off. One of the gentlemen asks a question. With her master distracted, Jane turns away from the madwoman on the floor, and the cluster of spectators. Unnoticed, she slips down the stairs, each step creaking familiarly in a house she no longer feels at home in.

She does not take much. There is no time: They will be downstairs soon, and someone might run after her with pleas and reasonable explanations.

She leaves by the servant’s gate. Nobody sees her go.

Behind her, the attic howls its loneliness to the wind.

* * * *

THE MOORS

She dies her second death on the moors.

It is cold, bitterly cold, and the changeling is not dressed for the weather. Her flesh suffers the elements as severely as any human, though her fey nature sings on the wind.

Home, she thinks bitterly. I’ve come home, and in a way she has: Being a changeling, she belongs nowhere.

At some point she sleeps, or tries to, huddling on a muddy bank under the shelter of a wind-beaten tree. At dawn she rises, scraping away the frost that has formed on her skin.

She wades knee-deep in the heath’s dark growth. She follows paths no humans could walk, under hills and through stones, through the abandoned tunnels and empty barrows that mark the deserted cities of the fey. No friendly fires welcome her.

She recalls the words she spoke once, by a warm fireplace: “The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago.” She had hoped to be wrong.

Wearily she directs her path out of the earth. She is almost at the end of her magic now; even her fey self cannot keep walking much longer. And yet she sets one foot in front of the other, stubborn to the end.

Her path takes her to the house at Marsh End, a lonely hermitage of a building. The servant who answers gives this wandering beggar a crust of bread before sending her off. The changeling accepts it numbly. She no longer has the strength for gratitude.

She does not eat the bread. With her last strength, she draws a splayed cross on the dust of the road and lays the bread on top of the symbol. As charms go, it’s horribly weak, but it is her last hope.

The changeling lies down beside her charm. Mustering what remains of her strength, she dies.

* * * *

MOURNING

Thornfield is a dark house now.

The clockwork girl sits in her room, counting the beats of her imperfect heart. Nobody cares if she studies penmanship, or asks her hard questions about the kings of England. Adele should be glad, but she isn’t. The master’s gloom has fallen on them all.

“Why did you do that?” she demands of the attic. “Why did you have to spoil everything?”

The attic is contemptuously silent.

“I don’t see why I had to show her the horseshoe,” Adele says. “She would have left anyway, as soon as she found out.” She adds, carefully, “It’s a scandal,” in the breathy way the maids did in the kitchen.

Silence. Adele lies down on her bed, facing away from the attic.

“Well I hope she comes back soon,” she says, and then adds, “I want to show her the new dance I’ve been working on.”

I need you to do something for me, the attic says. This time Adele claps her hands over her ears.

* * * *

THE SICK ROOM

The changeling comes back to life slowly. Her mind is in pieces and every piece of it hurts. She hears voices, sees fragments of faces. Some of them are there, some are elsewhere, some are long ago.

She is alive.

“She’s alive,” says the man, “but barely. We must keep her by the fire.”

“She looks sensible, but not at all handsome. The grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting in those features.”

The changeling groans. She wants to tell them that she knows she is plain; she has never had any pretensions to beauty. Whatever wild looks run in the blood of the fey passed her by. What is left is a dull composite of dreams unfulfilled.

But her movement brings only questions: “Who are you? Where are your people? What is your name?” They sting her like hornets.

To make them go away she answers, “Jane, my name is Jane—” then, remembering, she adds “—Elliot. I have no people.”

After that, they let her rest.

* * * *

MOOR HOUSE

There was a governess who worked in a house of thorns. She fell in love with a man but discovered his past locked in an attic. She ran away, like a madwoman broken free. She was adopted by a family. They lived in the house at Marsh End, and all ended happily ever after.

The changeling tries out her tale as she sits in the parlor, taking advantage of the family’s absence to test how her words bounce off the walls. It’s true, this sounds like a plausible conclusion, but she would prefer a different kind of ending.

She hears voices at the door. Her benefactors have returned.

“Jane Elliot!”

The alias is easy to answer to. Jane nods and smiles. Both of the women are pleasant enough, but it’s St. John that Jane is most aware of.

The master of the house is an austere man, a man made of marble, white and cold. The changeling feels obliged to him, on account of his saving her life, and on account of his being a religious man. The truth is, she doesn’t like him.

“We have news,” says Diana. “St. John has located a position for Mary. She is to be a governess.”

Jane’s face is slow to smile. For a moment she thinks she hears a footfall overhead, but of course there is no attic here. Her mind is playing tricks on her again.

She manages to congratulate Mary on her new employment. In truth, it is good news of a sort, for these gentlewomen have very little to live on, and their brother is to go for a missionary.

The magic that sleeps in these people is buried deep. In the women it almost never surfaces—their dreams are cramped by poverty. Also, they are afraid of their brother, of his torrential ambitions and drive to know God. The changeling senses his magic and fears it, for it flows down the narrow channels carved by his religion.

St. John does not know he is different. Or if he does, it is because he thinks he is one of God’s chosen. He believes he has a destiny. Such people are dangerous.

But, she thinks, this family means her no harm. They are the first other changelings that she has found. And where else would she go?

She must stay here and build a new life, no matter what it costs her.

* * * *

CURSES

“This place is cursed,” Adele says, balancing on her toes. The housekeeper turns and looks at her sharply.

“Who told you that?” Mr. Rochester asks. He almost never listens. Astonished, Adele loses her balance and lands flat-footed.

“Oh,” the clockwork girl says, “everyone.” She thinks of the gossiping maids, and of the madwoman brooding overhead, dark and terrible.

“You should not give credence to idle tales.” Mr. Rochester is staring out the window again, waiting for someone. The woman he is looking for will not return, Adele thinks, not as long as the house has curses piled up at its door.

“Nevertheless,” he says, as if to himself, “I should send you away. This is not a good place for a child. Not anymore.”

For a moment, hope flares inside Adele. “Shall I go to Paris?” she says. “To see Mama?”

Rochester is silent for a moment. Then he says, “No, I will not send you to Paris, but to my cousin’s house in Derbyshire. He has a young girl your age.”

Adele is horrified. Other girls? She imagines a pair of rivals, their hair curled more perfectly than hers, their artificial bodies perfectly poised. “Oh non, monsieur,” she wails. “Do not send me there.”

Afterward, when she has been sent to her room, she climbs up on one of the posts of her tall bed and puts her fingers against the ceiling. “Do something,” she says, “they are sending me away.”

You will be safer elsewhere, the attic says.

“But I don’t want to be elsewhere,” Adele says, outraged. “Elsewhere is exactly the same!” And she knows it—she’s been abroad in the world. It’s full of the spite of women, the jealousy of men. Curses sleep on every tongue. Here, at least, she has a place; she is cosseted and somewhat protected.

Then you must do what I tell you. The attic is relentless on this point. It has been whispering the same thing for weeks.

This time, Adele is willing to listen.

* * * *

DESTINIES

In Moor House, Jane is saying her goodbyes again. This time she is bidding farewell to her two protectors, the earnest changelings who do not know what they are. They do not know how to form charms; they have not seen the dead cities of the fey. Jane pities them, and envies them, too.

While she will miss them all, it will be a relief not to steel her mind against St. John’s ambition. When he talks to her, she does not feel like herself. She becomes the quiet, mouse-like creature she resembles, nodding at his every statement.

Just as she thinks this, a shadow falls on her shoulder. “May I have a word?” St. John asks, his voice mild and ominous.

The changeling wipes her damp hands on her skirt. There is nothing to be afraid of, she tells herself as she follows him out.

* * * *

THE SUMMONING

“And if I give you the candle, you can bring her back?” Adele is dubious. Her clockwork mind is turning over the details of the attic’s plan, and however much the voice in the walls reassures her, the part of Adele that remains human feels certain that her governess will never return.

The fire will call to her.

“Why can’t I free you?” Adele says. “I’m here already.”

Fire can burn the prison, but only one of my own blood can free me.

Adele does not follow this logic. She does not understand what a plain, mousy thing like her governess could have in common with the attic. But seeing as she cannot win the argument, she shrugs and reaches for the candle.

* * * *

THE SECOND PROPOSAL

The changeling walks on the heath with St. John. He looks, she thinks, like an animated statue, the kind that stalk young maidens through Italian castles.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he says, “about your future.”

Instantly her heart sinks. She is aware of the magic that swirls strongly around him. She raises barriers against its will.

“I have observed you for many weeks now,” he says, in his regular tone. “You have been obedient and reserved, though I have reason to believe this has not always been the case.”

Here he pauses, and she can almost hear him trying to frame what he senses but cannot admit: that the blood that runs in her veins is, like his own, wild and godless, thick with alien magic. “Do you know what you must do to save your soul?”

Keep in good health and never die. The old, rebellious answer springs to her tongue, but this time she bites down on it. She has too much to lose.

“You must be purified,” he says earnestly, “in blood and fire.”

The changeling keeps perfectly still.

“As you know, I intend to go to India, to do the Lord’s work and—I hope—earn a chance at redemption.”

To die in flame, in other words. He must know that foreign soil is fatal to their kind. He knows it; she can see the light of martyrdom in his eye.

“It has occurred to me,” he says, “that I would be benefited by having a helpmate. Someone who can aid me in my labors, visiting the natives, tending to me when I am ill. In short, that I may need a wife.”

Jane says nothing. All her breath has frozen inside her. She can see his plan now, unfolding before her. Yes, she would be the perfect wife for him: quiet, obedient, tumbling with him into an early grave. And if not? A ring of salt, a circle of iron.

St. John is getting angry now, his unacknowledged magic constricting the air. Already Jane can feel the awful charm forming, and part of her wonders if this was how the Masons caught the madwoman in the attic. People can pretend you have choices even as they deny you the air you breathe.

Still, she summons her strength to make her final reply. And it is in the summoning that she feels something tear away from her. On the other side of the shadow someone calls her name as they fall into a terrible light.

“No,” she says, the word coming out of her in a rush of air. Then she adds, “I must go.”

Leaving St. John bewildered in her wake, she runs across the heath, her skirt bunched up in her hands, the mud splattering her boots. Someone, somewhere, has done an awful thing. She can feel the narrative buckling around her as the story changes.

She is, therefore, not surprised to see a bearded man standing at the door, message in hand. Her heart sinks. She slows to a walk, trying to delay the last few seconds before the man speaks, knowing that whatever he says will propel her in a final direction.

The attic has called her home.

* * * *

JANE, HEIR

The people at the crossroads are happy to retell the story: how Rochester’s mad wife laughed to see the fire creep up Thornfield’s walls, how his young ward ran shrieking through the flickering passages, her pretty white dress crawling with flame.

The old house went quickly, they say. Its old beams gave up their ghosts with hardly a shriek.

They saw the madwoman, a candle in each hand, her hair fizzing in tendrils of smoke. They say she laughed as she jumped. Her crazed brains made wet puddles on the stones below.

“And Rochester?” The lady who inquires listens with a somber countenance.

The master tried to follow her as far as he could. To the edge of the roof, and almost over it. In the end, he lost an eye and his hand in the fire. (And his wife, of course, but they do not count her.)

The lady nods and rises. She counts out her storytellers’ reward. She is too new to wealth to treat each coin lightly, as a rich woman should.

Since becoming an heiress, the changeling has taken to acts of charity. She has also bought herself some better clothes, and a new set of luggage. The messenger who greeted her at the door that day had promised much more, but Jane didn’t want it. There was too much news to absorb—a sudden windfall from a relative in the West Indies, the discovery that the strange inhabitants of Moor House were her cousins by blood and not by charity—it was too much like the conclusion of a sentimental novel, and the changeling is of a more serious turn of mind.

So she split her riches with her newfound cousins and parted from St. John as a relation, but no longer a friend. And now, with money and haunted dreams, she has come home to the blackened ruin of Thornfield Hall.

The changeling walks over the scarred earth, looking for something she can recognize. She pauses at a broken spar that might have come from the attic. No weeds grow here. The wood underfoot has burned to a fine white ash that looks suspiciously like salt.

Looking around her, the changeling can see the remains of the claustrophobic walls of Thornfield, that for so long protected all their shared and tangled miseries.

It is time for a new kind of story.

The changeling draws a booted foot across the white line in front of her, breaking what remains of the circle. When she leaves, she does not look back.

* * * *

MEETINGS

The changeling finds Rochester hulking in a desolate manor house, surrounded by iron fences that cannot keep her out. The kitchen servant jumps when the changeling strides in, and puts a hand to her throat. “Oh my,” she says. And then, “Is that you?”

In the corner Adele stands to attention, tugging down the skirt to hide the burn on her leg. The attic has kept its word; now nobody will send her away.

Rochester does not receive visitors, they tell her.

“No fear of that,” says the changeling. “Give me the tray. I’ll carry it to him.”

So she does. Quietly, so as not to disturb him. She has a streak of fey cruelty in her still, and she has taken a good deal of punishment to be able to stand before him now and say: “I am myself, Jane Eyre, an independent woman.”

Which she will soon say. But for now, she draws out the moment, dismissing the excited dog with a flick of her pale hands. She stands patiently, as she did for so many dreary months when she was a mere governess in his service.

She waits for Rochester to notice her.

* * * *

PARTINGS

Reader, she married him. I wish I could say something different, although as far as endings go, this one will do. Let us leave her with what happiness she can gather together, a changeling with a husband and a son and a pretty clockwork ward, living together in a house by the moorlands.

Her new house has an attic, and ghosts creep around it at night. Sometimes they have names like Bertha or Brontë, and sometimes they are nameless. Still, both she and you know them as you do your own shadow. Your other half.

The changeling lies awake listening to them, wishing there was something she could do to help. But she cannot change dead histories.

She sleeps restlessly, the way all in-between creatures must do, awaiting eras in which they might yet be fully born into the world. In the meantime, the women creep overhead, rattling attics with stories that want to be told.

—For Susan Gubar

© 2013 by Siobhan Carroll.

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Siobhan Carroll

Siobhan CarrollWhen not globetrotting in search of dusty tomes, Siobhan Carroll lives and lurks in Delaware. She is a graduate of Clarion West, the indefatigable OWW, and the twin ivory towers of Indiana University and U.B.C. Her fiction can be found in magazines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, and IGMS. Sometimes she writes under the byline “Von Carr.” Both versions of herself firmly support the use of the Oxford Comma. For more, visit voncarr-siobhan-carroll.blogspot.com