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12 December 1847
Reader, I killed him, but it wasn’t what I had wanted, at least not at first. No, not even then. I must believe that. I did not want any blood to be shed when I ascended from the sepulchre.
No matter what some will say, violence was never in my nature, not once. As a wee girl walking along the Rio Minho, my small brother’s hand curled in mine, I avoided stepping on the snails and blue butterflies with my bare feet. Avoided them as I inhaled the songs of the sirens and myths below, which thrummed in my veins.
Ah, so much like love! Or what I thought love was. At the ball, I wore my sapphire-blue dress, and his eyes glittered like moonlight on the water. I almost forgot the color of his eyes, dark and ponderous. When Edward beseeched me to speak with him, as I anticipated he would, you must understand my hesitation to trust him, for there were still those of wealthy English blood, like him, who lived alongside us and boasted that they kept human beings like me—my grandmother, my grandfather, my great-grandmother—as “workers” on their vast sugar cane plantations. My family, on my father’s side, had been blessed with wealth, but that did not stop the traumas and fears of the past; nor did it absolve the terrors when the descendants of the former overseers showed “humble” guilt but mumbled of their ancestral pride.
It was at a ball Edward Rochester sought me out, as many men had. He told me I was the loveliest woman he had ever met, and though hesitant to trust him, I was nevertheless enchanted by his words. As a daughter of a well-to-do family, my romantic choices were vast but one-sided. Edward was the first man whose advances I felt compelled to accept and reciprocate. He was clever and well-mannered — at least, he was in Spanish Town. I was smitten and, sad to say it, ready to go somewhere new. So many spoke of the beauties of the British Empire, and I found myself, shamefully, enwrapped in a vision that didn’t involve me.
Indeed, there were many people from the locations conquered by England, including my own, who lived in the imperialist country, but I was not so naive to think their treatment fair. Yet, few had gone and returned without some porcelain or something beautiful with roses painted on them, which filled me with sublime dread and wonder, as if looking down at a great expanse, both feet close to the edge. England was in my father’s blood, and it was in mine. Did I not belong there as much as Edward? Was I not his equal?
Perhaps, I thought I would be protected by Edward, weary of often having to be independent and strong for my family. He was older than me, but I had hoped his stability would be fortuitous to myself and any children we had. Stability that I could not find at home after all that had transpired. Edward was handsome, well-off, and eloquent, and I was lovely, wealthy, and artistic. From a young age, I absorbed all I could from paint, books, and music.
My father was in distress, and though I did not want to relent in assisting my young brother Richard with his trauma after our mother’s absence, I did not want to be the adult daughter lurking about, a strain on the family’s dwindling finances where once we had thrived. I did not want to be another ghost, wearing Mother’s clothes and sitting where she would. But what was worse to me were the lingering smells of Mother’s perfume, orange and vanilla, the dust collecting in the piano room where she once loved to play. The golden wallpaper with its swirling floral patterns.
Edward did not know that my mother, sick with grief after her father’s passing, had been committed to the hospital because of mental exhaustion; nor that my brother had a condition which doctors only called neurasthenia, telling us his nerves did not operate as they should, leaving him with headaches, constant fatigue, and spells where his hands would shake and nothing in the world could make him sleep or eat. Nor did Edward know of my own experiences. Despite the sensational portraits in lurid fiction, my ailment, much like my brother’s but undiagnosed, was as mundane to me as a spring breeze.
The day Edward had asked for my hand, my brother had tugged on my sleeve. “Please don’t go, Nettie. Please, please.”
I can’t recall what I said, I’ll write letters, maybe.
13 December 1847
This morning, before the sun had fully risen, Jane woke me from another nightmare. I remember nothing but the colour yellow and the taste of dust. Bless her soul!–How she cares for me. It has been nine months since the fire. We were fortunate to be taken in by a kindly widow, Mrs. Rivers, mother of St. John and Jane’s maternal aunt. Jane’s cousin, a pious man, is earth where Edward was fire–consuming.
In the spring, I would walk in the rain, my dress trailing through the puddles. Now there is only bitter snow, and I resent it. Everything after leaving the attic is starker, harsh on the eyes; debilitating.
When I first came to England, I was breathless at the gloomy, cobwebbed beauty of Thornfield Hall. It wasn’t until I saw what I shouldn’t have among the pale, pink roses that I was deemed mad. To be fully truthful, I had told him of some of my experiences with frail nerves. I had no such episodes in my first few months at the Hall, but I did see Edward flirting with visiting noblewomen. When I confronted him, it did little good:
“I saw you,” I said. At least, those were my first words.
“No, you didn’t.” I cannot recall the rest of the argument, and the cold in the room is hurting my bones, but it was fruitless. That was that, for any doubt would have been an accusation. His countenance twisted in concern—or, I suppose now, a mask of it. “Dear, are you feeling well?”
And so, my unraveling began. What I believed and what was true was manipulated. That, and my increasing loneliness in a cold land—for I was not seen as English, nor did I feel English—curled into something like grief. I grew sullen, my walks in the fog-laden garden—smelling of a dew with flowers I did not recognise—disorienting.
When Edward grew impatient with my deepening melancholy, he said, “All I wanted was to help you, to elevate you. What more can a woman like you ask for than to be married to pure English stock? And still, it’s not enough.”
It took all my strength to not sob. “I want you to be here with me. To hold me and understand.”
Of my suffering, I don’t want to elaborate. Such struggles are often spoken of at length to make a party feel at ease about their own comforts or their capacity to feel pity for a wounded soul. Suffice to say, being locked in an attic—treated as a token of shame without agency, a wine stain blotted on a silk tablecloth soon discarded, its lace forming a bloody spider web in the moors—was unpleasant.
Bedrest was my diagnosed cure from a doctor Edward had paid to tend to me. A cool, quiet place where I could not leave or speak to anyone. Has it truly been nearly a decade? I shudder to think of it. My life has become like blue fire, the sulphur used to cast a theatre stage in a spectral light, a glamour which obscures more than it illuminates.
Indeed, I was not meant to speak to anyone, as that would only excite me. Edward must’ve told the servants I should be avoided, as if I was diseased or violent, and they kept their distance when giving me food and other necessities. I was given no books or means to entertain myself, and there were no windows to see the world pass by; if it had continued to exist at all. I had no visitors until one night–that night.
I could not make out many of her features, and I remained still, convinced I was dreaming. I felt like; no, I feel like an old maid, but I have not reached my thirtieth year on this Earth yet. She approached me carefully, though, not with the same wariness with which the others would–as if they were avoiding a cornered stray. I can see it now, see myself, through this window I often look out of in the Rivers estate, glimpsing a garden of dead roses and imagining dancing bees. I see myself. I was sitting in the corner on the floor because the chair was too stiff and the bedsheets too dirty.
Kneeling on the floor before me, hands on her knees, she said, “Who are you? You were in my bedroom a few nights ago when I woke up.” I had, and I had been surprised by her presence, not knowing who she was. Her gown had been plain, the blue muted. Steeling my nerves, I had walked through the halls and successfully evaded a servant; but not for long.
I replied, “I am Edward Rochester’s wife. And who are you?”
She answered with her name: Jane. But that was not what I was asking. She added, “He spoke of you, but he said you had died.”
Despair filled my heart. “I suppose we’ve been ghosts to each other for ages.”
I corrected her. “Nettie.”
“I am Nettie. Who are you?”
“My name is Jane.” Her reply was bemused, as she though she had already answered.
I pressed, “Who are you to him?”
“We were in love, I thought. Betrothed.” She had laughed, then added, “But what is love to someone like me?”
I did not understand her question, seeing no reason to think she was destitute in any manner. Why would she be starved of love? Why would love be a shock to her? I had not asked her yet. I can be no judge of what the English consider beautiful, except to say that it often excludes myself and those I have loved. Jane was, is, quite pretty.
Jane said to me, “How can I help you?”
I distrusted her words. “Help” came at a price, as I had torturously learned. Edward had said he wanted to assist me, to “elevate” me, when he had meant sending me to the attic, above him and out of sight. But I did not want her to simply leave. In leaving me here, she would be complicit in my state, like everyone else.
I said, “We should leave here together.” I did not plead. I was so afraid to show my desperation, the same helplessness which had given Edward his reasons to lock me away.
Expecting her to refuse, I was shocked when she nodded. “Where would we go?”
“I’m not certain.” I stood, and she followed suit. “If we leave, we should do it at night. How did you find me here? How could you gain access?”
“I saw a maid coming in here, and I took a key from one of the servants. It was a fortunate guess.” She pulled something out of her dress, the key, I supposed, though I could barely make out its shape. “I was going to return this in secret, but now I think we’ll keep it.”
I wondered where she’d gotten the talent to take something out of one’s pocket without detection, but my mind was directed toward freedom. Had Father or my brother asked about me? Did they assume I was dead? No matter. Once I was free, I could write to them; but I was afraid. Edward had looked at me with fear and disgust. What if I had, what if I have truly become removed from who I once was?
To be in need of Jane’s help hurt my pride, but then, for so long I had been treated as the dragon; I had never been given the chance to be the princess, loved and cherished and protected to the ends of the Earth, a woman Romantics would pine about in sublime ecstasy. A cherished subject worthy of being fought for. But who could say Jane would even keep her promise?
“We should go now,” I said, elaborating, “Or I—I can leave. I don’t want him, after what he did to hurt me. If you want him, God rest your soul, but I won’t get in the way of your choice. I simply want the freedom to do as I wish.”
I have not spoken at length about her expressions because they were hard to see in the shadows I was often left in. Her dark hair and gentle brown eyes, blemishes on her skin of tenuous adulthood–this is why I love the sun; now we can see each other clearly. But then I saw a light flash in the darkness, and I still cannot dare to guess what it meant.
17 December 1847
The cold has been unkind to my body. My ankles and back ache. Jane gives me warm cloths to set on my joints. She is always attentive and tender, and it makes me feel a flurry of emotions I cannot name.
Jane spends much of her time with St. John, who is always dressed in black. I only barely listen, not wanting to disturb the companionship she has gained and not being especially interested in St. John. When we sit for tea, he will offer no impassioned words, no touches, the most being their hands clasped, as if in prayer, which doesn’t seem to excite either of them. I resent him and what he represents, but I will never say as much. Jane will glance at me, but I can’t tell what she wants to say or do.
Once he left this afternoon, Jane and I sojourned in her quarters, a room with straight lines and floral wallpaper. She sat on her bed, and I sat at the vanity, my back to the mirror. For the first time, she mentioned her other family in passing, an aunt besides Mrs. Rivers.
“You lived with her?”
Her smile was thin. “We didn’t get on.” She looked at her hands which were toying with her skirt. “It isn’t the same at all. All those years you were . . . I can’t imagine. But when my aunt would grow angry with me, when I would speak up, she’d lock me in the red room, where my uncle died. When I was in there, I felt as if his ghost would conjure itself beside me.”
“That must’ve been frightening.”
“I feared mentioning it to anyone, even—” Jane cut herself off. “I’d be thought mad.”
“She was cruel. May I ask what happened to your parents?”
“Papa was a member of the clergy, a deeply religious man,” she started.
I said lightly, “I certainly hope he was religious, or being a clergyman would be miserable.”
“You and your wit.”
“It’s one of the things I have left. I didn’t mean to interrupt, please go on.”
“He fell in love with my mother against their families’ wishes. They both died of typhus helping the poor. I was only a few months old. My relatives did not want to care for me, seeing me as a walking sin.”
“I’m terribly sorry, love. I cannot imagine how difficult that was.” I cannot. Though I have not gained the courage to write my family, fearful of what I might discover and what they might think of me once I become more than a memory, I have at least not yet learned of death. “And I cannot imagine why anyone would be cruel to you.”
“I feel the same about you.”
Jane shook her head. “You shouldn’t have to thank me.”
“Have you lost anyone else?” I asked, knowing it was perhaps intrusive, but we had already seen much of one another’s lowest moments after the fire.
Her eyes were solemn. “I had a friend. Helen, Helen Burns. She died in my arms of consumption.”
I was overwhelmed with grief, and I didn’t understand it then. It was grief for her, but it was also empathy. Empathy, because while I have lost much, I have not lost anyone to Heaven, have I? I cannot say whether Edward counts, as it is painful to reconcile what I conceived I’d feel once I was free of him with what I do feel. It is rational to assume I’d be glad of his death, that I’d feel little, if any, sadness. But it’s as if my loathing of him augments the pain more than if we were in love again, if we ever were. Because we were at odds, there is no reconciliation, only the bitter ghost of what could have been as a substitute for righteous anger.
My family is still alive, and yet, I still mourn them. I mourn that I cannot be their daughter, as I am ashamed at what they might see. I can only hope Mother is out of the institution and her nerves are stronger. I think a lot of my family these days. Mother, Father, Richard; and it hurts. I cannot help but feel as if I’ve betrayed them, and it is somehow worse to know that they wouldn’t agree.
When I was speaking to Jane, overwhelmed with homesickness, of the gulf of an entire ocean between me and my home; I started to weep, and I was horrified. Why was I the one to cry in that moment? Why was I the one, once Jane stood and came over to me, to be held?
It has been raining for most of the night, and Jane followed me to my quarters and fell asleep, still in her day clothes. She is next to me now, breathing softly, and the candle flame is low. I don’t dare wake her, though I wonder if she has done this to give me some comfort when the nightmares inevitably come.
I remember our escape.
As we went down the halls, half a maze to me, lightning split the large oak by the manor in half, sending the blazing wood crashing into the house, brittle in its old age. A single shattering crash, and everything was fire. The manor was vulnerable to fire, but Edward had assured me, when he still loved me, that nothing terrible would happen.
We kept running, hands joined, our nerves eclipsing our stunned horror. Some time during our fleeing, we encountered Edward in a scarlet bedrobe. It was then I realised he had not visited me in some time, as the sides of his hair were streaked with gray. He reached out, crying out for Jane, eyes wide. The fire had spread below. He chased after us and took Jane’s arm, refusing to let go despite her protests. I let go of her, and she looked at me in fear, perhaps expecting me to go on without her.
Instead, I shoved him, catching him off-guard, hoping he would break his hold and give us time to expand our distance. I watched in horror as he tumbled over the banister and into the fire.
There’s little in the moments after I recall, only that Jane and I ended up hand in hand in the bushes outside the burning manor, and we fled as swiftly as we could into the night. The stench of smoke rolled in waves over us, and though I was lost and guilt-ridden, I could not deny my relief, sobbing and laughing in turn. In my dreams, I still see him falling, the look of terror etched upon his countenance. Perhaps I should not feel guilt and fear, but I do, and I wonder how Jane must see it. How my family would see it if they ever discovered what I had endured, and what I had done.
3 January 1848
It is well after midnight, and it is snowing harder than ever before. Six nights ago, the worst of the snowstorms began, and Jane and I dwelt by the sitting room hearth. The smell of burning wood was calming when it was once unsettling. And more than ever, I was ready for warmth and light. We had been reading next to one another, though I noticed she had been twisting her fingers in a curl that had fallen out of its pins; a sign of her nervousness. I have learned many things about Jane from looking at her from the the peripheries, and no doubt she has learned much about me. I’ve seen how she tugs on her collar and swiftly hides the magazines she’s bought for a penny under her mattress.
“What is it?” I asked softly.
She stopped. “Oh, it’s nothing.” When she looked at me, she said, “You look tired.”
I smiled. “That is how I always look.” Though my typically meagre constitution has improved with sunlight and conversation.
Jane shook her head. “You are beautiful.”
“Here, I think there are different standards.” In Jamaica, it is normal for someone to not be especially thin, but here, I was different in my lack of waifishness. Though, all the same, wherever I was my dark, curly hair and skin colour were under scrutiny.
“I’m sorry, Nettie. It shouldn’t be so.” Jane looked down at her book, brow furrowed, lip sucked in. Abruptly, she revealed: “St. John asked me to marry him.”
I was startled and stiffened. “What did you say?”
“I refused him.”
It was difficult to mask my relief. “Why?”
“Because we are intellectually matched, but there is no passion. I appreciate that he cares about duty and God, but he believes they are removed from the heart, and I don’t.”
“And where is your heart?”
When she didn’t answer, I looked at her again, at the fire dancing in her eyes. My heart swelled when she gently took my hands. She leaned close, mouth parted, but it was I who closed the distance between us, tentatively touching my lips to hers. My throat and chest tightened, but I seemed to melt when she set her hands on my arms and returned my affection. In Spanish Town, there is one of the few cathedrals in Jamaica named St. Jago de la Vega; named after what the town had been called before the English seized it — one imperialist traded for another. The cathedral is a brick building surrounded by blushing hibiscuses, petals as soft as dove wings, and rose-coloured kiss-me-over-the-gardens. The building always points to the ether above, with a bowed, skeleton-white chandelier and an impressive pipe organ on the inside.
The music in my head reverberated and took me into flight; nothing like the chimes I recalled on my wedding day, which had become my dirge. I was reminded of the cathedral when I kissed Jane, the taste of roses and peace and communion wine.
When Jane kissed me—when she kisses me—I am a hummingbird to nectar. In flight, tasting the water and rain and warmth I need.
15 May 1848
This afternoon, Jane and I walked along the creek running behind the house. After some distance behind us, we took each other’s hands. A cool breeze ruffled our hair. Pilewort flowers formed little suns around us.
I said, “I think I want to visit home, but I’m not certain I’m able.”
“I’ll speak with my aunt.”
“It isn’t the finances. I don’t know if I can face them, face their questions and disappointment.”
“Why would they be disappointed with all you’ve overcome?” The way Jane speaks, so in reverence of me, is at times overwhelming; I cannot help but bask in her adoration and reciprocate it in kind. “If you’re worried, I can go with you.”
I squeeze her hand. “I—I would like that.”
To say I am without my trauma would be untrue, but when I dream, I am no longer afraid of the flames.
Morgan Dante is a spooky flower goth who writes horror and fantasy. They have published stories and poems in anthologies by TL;DR Press, Z Publishing, Vamp Cat Mag, honey & lime, and Eldritch Journal. With a contemporary fantasy trilogy on the way from Scarsdale Publishing, they have also published three horror novels: Dove Keeper, Birds in a Cage, and Rabbit Heart. After receiving a BA in English from Kennesaw State, they earned an MA in professional writing. When they aren’t writing, they assist Doubleback Press with site HTML and social media and co-edit Exhume, a lit mag for queer trauma survivors. They currently live in the Appalachian South with their family.