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Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic (22 page)

BOOK: Mexican Gothic
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He closed the door behind him.

Francis grabbed the silver tray and brought it to the bed. Noemí clutched the covers. “You really must eat,” he told her.

“Isn’t it poisoned?” she asked.

He leaned down, set the tray upon her lap, whispering in Spanish to her ear. “The food you’ve had, the tea, they’ve been laced with something, yes. But the egg is fine, start eating. I’ll tell you.”

“What—”

“In Spanish,” he said. “He can hear, through the walls, through the house, but he doesn’t speak Spanish. He won’t understand. Keep your voice low and eat, I’m serious. You
are
dehydrated and you vomited so much last night.”

Noemí stared at him. Slowly she grabbed a spoon and tapped the hard-boiled egg’s shell without taking her eyes off him.

“I want to help you,” he said, “but it’s difficult. You’ve seen what the house can do.”

“Keep you inside, apparently. Is it true I can’t leave?”

“It can induce you to do certain things and stop you from doing others.”

“Control your mind.”

“In a way. It’s more rudimentary than that. There’s certain instincts it triggers.”

“I couldn’t breathe.”

“I know.”

Slowly Noemí nibbled at a bit of egg. When she was done he pointed at the toast, nodding, but shook his head at the jam.

“There must be a way to get out of here.”

“There might be.” He took out a little flask from his pocket and showed it to her. “Recognize this?”

“It’s the medicine I gave my cousin. What are you doing with it?”

“Dr. Cummins told me to get rid of it after that episode, but I didn’t. The fungus, it’s in the air, and my mother makes sure it’s in your food. That’s how, slowly, it gets a hold of you. But it’s very sensitive to certain triggers. It doesn’t really like light much, nor certain scents.”

“My cigarettes,” she said, snapping her fingers. “It irritates the house. And this tincture, it must irritate it too.”

Did the healer in town know this? Or had it been a happy accident? Catalina had figured out the tincture had an effect on the house, that was certain. Accidental or intentional, her cousin had discovered the key even if she had been prevented from turning it.

“It does more than that,” Francis said. “It interferes with it. You take this tincture, the house, the fungus, will loosen its hold on you.”

“How can you be sure about that?”

“Catalina. She tried to run away, but Virgil and Arthur caught her and brought her back. They found the draught she’d been taking and determined it was affecting the house’s control on her, so they took it away. But they didn’t realize this had been going on for a little while, and she must have asked someone in town to post a letter for her.”

Catalina, clever girl. She’d devised a fail-safe mechanism and had summoned help. Unfortunately, now Noemí, the would-be rescuer, was also trapped.

She reached for the flask, but he caught her hand and shook his head. “Remember what happened to your cousin? Take too much at once and you’ll have a seizure.”

“Then it’s useless.”

“Far from it. You’ll have to drink a little bit each time. Look, Dr. Cummins is here for a reason. Great Uncle Howard is going to die. There’s no stopping it. The fungus extends your life, but it can’t keep you going forever. His body will give way soon, and afterward he’ll begin the transmigration. He will take possession of Virgil’s body. When that happens, when he dies, everyone will be distracted. They’ll be busy clustering around both of them. And the house will be weakened.”

“When will this happen?”

“It can’t be too long,” Francis said. “You’ve seen Howard.”

Noemí didn’t really want to remember what she’d seen. She put down the bit of egg she had been nibbling and frowned.

“He wants you to be part of the family. Go along with it, be patient, and I’ll get you out of here. There are tunnels, they lead to the cemetery, and I think I can hide supplies in them.”

“What does ‘go along with it’ mean exactly?” Noemí asked, because Francis was evading her eyes.

She caught his chin with one hand, made him look at her. He stood perfectly still, holding his breath.

“He’d like you to marry me. He’d like you to have children with me. He wants you to be one of us,” Francis said at last.

“And if I say no? What then?”

“He’ll have his way.”

“He’ll carve my mind out, like the servants? Or simply rape me?” she asked.

“It won’t come to that,” Francis muttered.

“Why?”

“Because he enjoys controlling people in other ways. It would be too coarse. He let my father go to town for years, he let Catalina go to church. He even let Virgil and my mother get far away from town and find spouses. He knows he needs people to obey his will and do his bidding, and they must welcome it, otherwise it’s too exhausting.”

“And he can’t control them all the time,” Noemí ventured. “Ruth was able to grab a rifle, after all, and Catalina tried to tell me the truth.”

“That’s right. And Catalina wouldn’t reveal who’d given her the tonic, no matter how much Howard tried to wrestle that information from her.”

Plus the miners had organized a strike. As much as Howard Doyle would like to believe himself a god, he couldn’t push and force everyone to submit to him every hour of the day. And yet, in decades past, he must have been able to subtly manipulate a great number of people, and when that wasn’t enough he could kill them or make them disappear, like with Benito.

“Outright confrontation won’t work,” Francis said.

Noemí examined the butter knife and knew he was right. What could she do? Kick and punch and she’d end up right where she was, perhaps even worse off. “If I agree to go along with this charade, then you must get Catalina out too.”

Francis did not reply, but she could guess that he wasn’t enjoying the idea of springing two people out by the way he frowned.

“I can’t leave her behind,” she said, clutching the hand in which he still held the bottle. “You must also give her the tincture, you must also break her free.”

“Yes, fine. Keep your voice down.”

She let go of his hand and lowered her voice. “You must promise, on your life.”

“I’m promising. Now, shall we give it a try?” he asked, taking out the bottle’s glass stopper. “It’ll make you a little sleepy, but you probably need the rest.”

“Virgil can see my dreams,” she muttered, pressing her knuckles against her mouth for a moment. “Won’t he know, if he can see my dreams? Won’t he know what I’m thinking?”

“They’re not really dreams. It’s the gloom. But be careful when you’re there.”

“I don’t know if I can trust you,” she said. “Why would you help me?”

He was unlike his cousin in a thousand tiny ways, with his slim hands and his weak mouth, spindly where Virgil was solid forcefulness. He was young and wan, and infected with kindness. But who could say if it was all for show, if he couldn’t sink into ruthless indifference. After all, nothing in this place was what it seemed. There were secrets upon secrets.

She touched the back of her neck, the place where Virgil’s fingers had dug into her hair.

Francis twirled the glass stopper in one hand. It caught a stray ray of light, filtering through the curtains; a tiny prism, painting a rainbow on the edge of her bed.

“There’s a cicada fungus.
Massospora cicadina
. I remember reading a journal article which discussed its appearance: the fungus sprouts along the abdomen of the cicada. It turns it into a mass of yellow powder. The journal said the cicadas, which had been so grossly infected, were still ‘singing,’ as their body was consumed from within. Singing, calling for a mate, half dead. Can you imagine?” Francis said. “You’re right, I do have a choice. I’m not going to end my life singing a tune, pretending everything is fine.”

He ceased toying with the glass stopper and glanced at her.

“You managed to pretend so far.”

She stared at him, and he stared back at her gravely. “Yes,” he said. “And now you’re here and I can’t anymore.”

She watched him, silent, as he poured out a minute amount of liquid onto a spoon. Noemí swallowed the tincture. It was bitter. He offered her the napkin that had been set by her plate, and Noemí wiped her mouth clean.

“Let me take this away,” Francis said, placing the bottle back in his pocket and picking up her tray. She touched his arm, and he stopped.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me,” he replied. “I should have spoken sooner, but I’m a coward.”

She pressed her head back against the pillows after that and let the drowsiness take over. Later—she wasn’t sure how much later—she heard a rustling of cloth and sat up. Ruth Doyle was perched at the foot of her bed, looking down at the floor.

Not Ruth. A memory? A ghost? Not quite a ghost. She realized that what she had been seeing, the voice whispering to her, urging her to open her eyes, was the mind of Ruth, which still nestled in the gloom, in the crevices and mold-covered walls. There must be other minds, bits of persons, hidden underneath the wallpaper, but none as solid, as tangible as Ruth. Except, perhaps, for that golden presence that she still could not identify and that she could not even declare a
person
. It didn’t feel like a person. Not like Ruth.

“Can you hear me?” she asked. “Or are you like the grooves in a vinyl record?”

She wasn’t afraid of the girl. She was a young woman, abused and abandoned. Her presence wasn’t malicious, merely anxious.

“I’m not sorry,” Ruth said.

“My name is Noemí. I’ve seen you before, but I’m not sure you understand me.”

“Not sorry.”

Noemí didn’t think the girl was going to offer her more than those scant words, but suddenly Ruth lifted her head and stared at her.

“Mother cannot, will not protect you. No one will protect you.”

Mother is dead
, Noemí thought.
You killed her
. But she doubted there was any point in reminding someone who was a corpse, long buried, about such things. Noemí stretched out a hand, touching the girl’s shoulder. She felt real under her fingers.

“You have to kill him. Father will never let you go. That was my mistake. I didn’t do it right.” The girl shook her head.

“How should you have done it?” Noemí asked.

“I didn’t do it right. He is a god! He is a god!”

The girl began sobbing and clasped both hands against her mouth, rocking back and forth. Noemí tried to embrace her, but Ruth flung herself against the floor and curled up there, her hands still covering her mouth. Noemí knelt down next to her.

“Ruth, don’t cry,” she said, and as she spoke Ruth’s body turned gray, white speckles of mold spreading across her face and hands, and the girl wept, black tears sliding down her cheeks, bile trickling out of her mouth and nose.

Ruth began to tear at herself with her nails, letting out a hoarse scream. Noemí pushed herself backward, bumping against the bed. The girl was writhing; now she scratched at the floor, her nails tearing at the wood, driving splinters into her palms.

Noemí clacked her teeth together in fear and thought to cry too, but then she recalled the words, the mantra.

“Open your eyes,” Noemí said.

And Noemí did. She opened her eyes, and the room was dark. She was alone. It rained again. She stood up and slid the curtain away. The distant sound of thunder was unsettling. Where was her bracelet? The bracelet against the evil eye. But that would do no good now. Inside the night table’s drawer she found her pack of cigarettes and her lighter; those were still there.

Noemí flicked the lighter on, watching the flame bloom, and then closed it, returning it to the drawer.

22

Francis came back to see her the next morning, giving her another small amount of the tincture and pointing out the items that were safe to eat. When night fell, he reappeared with a tray of food and told her that after she finished her dinner they were supposed to speak with Virgil, who awaited them in the office.

It was too dark, even with the oil lamp in Francis’s hands, to look at the portraits running along the wall that led toward the library, but she wished she could have stopped and gazed at Ruth’s picture. It was an impulse born of curiosity and sympathy. She had been a prisoner, like her.

Noemí was struck by the unpleasant scent of moldy books as soon as Francis opened the door to the office. Funny how she’d gotten used to it and barely noticed it in days past. She wondered if that meant the tincture was doing its job.

Virgil sat behind the desk. The subdued lighting in the paneled room gave him the appearance of a Caravaggio painting and rendered his face almost bloodless. There was a stillness to his body, like that of a wild animal camouflaging itself. His fingers were laced together, and when he saw them he leaned forward in greeting, smiling.

“You seem to be doing better,” Virgil said. Noemí sat before him, Francis at her side, her mute stare the one answer to his question. “I’ve asked you here because we need to clarify a few points. Francis says you understand the situation and you’re willing to cooperate with us,” Virgil continued.

“If you mean I realize I can’t leave this horrid house, yes, that has become unfortunately clear.”

“Don’t be sore about it, Noemí—it’s quite a lovely house once it gets to know you. Now, I guess the question is whether you are determined to be a nuisance or whether you’ll willingly join the family?”

On the walls the three deer heads cast long shadows. “You have a very interesting notion of ‘willingly,’ ” Noemí said. “Are you offering any other option to me? I don’t think so. I’ve decided to stay alive, if that is what you’d like to know. I wouldn’t want to end up in a pit, like those poor miners.”

“We didn’t dump them in a pit. They’re all buried in the cemetery. And they needed to die. You must make the soil fertile.”

“With human bodies.
Mulch
, isn’t that right?”

“They would have died anyway. It was an assortment of underfed peasants, riddled with lice.”

“Was your first wife also a peasant, riddled with lice? Did you also use her to make the soil more fertile?” Noemí asked. She wondered if her portrait was hanging outside, with the pictures of all the other Doyles. A wretched young woman with her chin up, trying to maintain her smile for the camera.

Virgil shrugged. “No. But she was inadequate all the same, and I can’t say that I miss her.”

“How charming.”

“You won’t make me feel bad about that, Noemí. The strong survive, the weak are left behind. I think you’re quite strong,” he said. “And what a pretty face you have. Dark skin, dark eyes. Such a novelty.”

Dark meat
, she thought. Nothing but meat, she was the equivalent of a cut of beef inspected by the butcher and wrapped up in waxed paper. An exotic little something to stir the loins and make the mouth water.

Virgil stood up, rounding the desk and standing behind them, a firm hand resting on the back of each of their chairs. “My family, as you might know, has strived to keep the bloodline clean. Our selective breeding has allowed us to transmit the most desirable traits. Our compatibility with the fungi in this house is the result of that. There’s one tiny problem.”

Virgil began walking around, circling them, looking down at the desk and toying with a pencil. “Do you know that chestnut trees that stand alone are sterile? They require cross-pollination from another tree. This seems to have become the case with us too. My mother gave my father two living children, yes, but she had many stillbirths. It’s the same story when you look back in time. Stillbirths, crib deaths. Before Agnes, my father had two other wives, neither of which was any good.

“On occasion you need to inject new blood into the mix, so to speak. Of course my father has always been very stubborn about these things, insisting that we must not mingle with the rabble.”

“Superior and inferior traits, after all,” Noemí said dryly.

Virgil smiled. “Exactly. The old man even brought earth from England to ensure the conditions here would be like the ones in our motherland; he wasn’t about to entertain the locals. But the way things have gone, it has become a necessity. A question of survival.”

“Hence Richard,” Noemí said. “And hence Catalina.”

“Yes. Although if I’d seen you before, I might have picked you rather than her. You’re healthy, young, and the gloom rather likes you.”

“I suppose my money doesn’t hurt.”

“Well, that’s obviously a prerequisite. Your stupid Revolution robbed us of our fortune. We must get it back. Survival, as I said.”

“Murder, I think that’s the word. You murdered all those miners. You made them sick, you didn’t tell them what was wrong with them, and your doctor, he let them die. And you must have killed Ruth’s lover too. Although she paid you back for that.”

“You’re not being very nice, Noemí,” he said, his eyes fixed on hers. He sounded peeved and turned to Francis. “I thought you had smoothed things out with her.”

“Noemí won’t try running again,” Francis said, sliding his hand upon her own.

“That’s a good first step. The second step is that you are going to write a letter to your father, explaining that you will remain here until Christmas, to keep Catalina company. Come Christmas, you’ll inform him that you’ve been married and intend to live with us.”

“My father will be upset.”

“Then you’ll have to write a few more letters, to assuage his concerns,” Virgil said smoothly. “Now, why don’t you start writing that first letter.”

“Now?”

“Yes. Come here,” Virgil said, patting the chair he had been occupying behind the desk.

Noemí hesitated but stood up and took the seat he was offering. There was a sheet of paper ready and a pen. Noemí stared at the writing instruments but did not pick them up.

“Go on,” Virgil said.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Write a convincing message. Because we wouldn’t want your father visiting us and maybe falling ill with an odd disease, would we?”

“You wouldn’t,” she whispered.

Virgil leaned down, gripping her shoulder tight. “There’s plenty of space in the mausoleum, and as you pointed out, our physician is not very good at treating illnesses.”

Noemí shoved his hand aside and began writing. Virgil turned away.

She kept scribbling, finally signing the letter. When she was done Virgil came back to her side and read the letter, nodding.

“Are you happy?” Francis asked. “She’s done her bit.”

“She’s far from done her bit,” Virgil muttered. “Florence is rummaging around the house, trying to find Ruth’s old wedding dress. We’re to have ourselves a wedding ceremony.”

“Why?” Noemí asked. Her mouth felt dry.

“Howard is a stickler for those kind of details. Ceremonies. He does love them.”

“Where will you find a priest?”

“My father can officiate; he’s done so before.”

“So I’ll be wed in the Church of the Holy Incestuous Mushroom?” she intoned. “I doubt that’s valid.”

“Don’t worry, we will of course drag you to the magistrate at one point.”


Drag
is the right word.”

Virgil slammed the letter down on the desk, startling Noemí. She winced. She recalled his strength. He’d carried her into the house as if she were as light as a feather. His hand, resting against the desk, was large, capable of inflicting tremendous damage.

“You should consider yourself lucky. I did tell my father Francis might as well tie you to the bed and fuck you tonight, without any preamble, but he doesn’t think that would be right. You’re a lady, after all. I disagree. Ladies are not wanton, and as we both know, you aren’t exactly a little innocent lamb.”

“I have no idea—”

“Oh, you definitely have
a few
ideas.”

Virgil’s fingers grazed her hair. The slightest touch, which sent a shiver down her body, a dark and delicious feeling coursing down her veins, like imbibing champagne much too quickly. Like in her dreams. She thought of sinking her teeth into his shoulder and biting down, hard. A ferocious pang of desire and hatred.

Noemí jumped up, pushing the chair between herself and Virgil. “Don’t!”

“Don’t what?”

“Stop this,” Francis said, hurrying to her side. He clutched her hand, assuaging her, quickly reminding her with one look that they had, after all, a plan, and then, turning to Virgil, he spoke firmly. “She’s my bride. You need to show her respect.”

Virgil seemed unamused by his cousin’s words, that thin, tart smile of his widening, ready to turn into a snarl. She was certain he would push back, but he surprised her by raising his hands in the air in sudden, theatrical surrender.

“Well, I guess for once in your life you’ve actually grown a pair of balls. Fine,” Virgil said. “I’ll be polite. But she needs to mind her words and learn her place.”

“She will. Come,” Francis said, quickly guiding her out of the office, oil lamp in hand, shadows wavering and shifting due to the sudden movement of the light source.

Once outside, he turned to her. “Are you all right?” he asked in a whisper, switching to Spanish.

She did not reply. Noemí pulled him down the hallway, into one of the unused, dusty rooms with chairs and settees covered by white sheets. A huge floor-to-ceiling mirror reflected them, its top embellished with elaborate carvings of fruits and flowers and the ever-present snake that lurked around every corner in this house. Noemí stopped in her tracks as she stared at the snake, and Francis almost bumped into her, whispering an apology.

“You said you’d get supplies for us,” she told him, her eyes on the decoration surrounding the mirror, the fearful snake. “But what about weapons?”

“Weapons?”

“Yes. Rifles and guns?”

“There are no rifles, not after what happened with Ruth. My uncle Howard keeps a gun in his room, but I wouldn’t be able to have access to it.”

“There must be something!”

She was startled by her own vehemence. In the mirror, Noemí saw her face reflected, anxious, and turned away, disgusted by the sight of it. Her hands were trembling, and she had to hold on to the back of a chair to steady herself.

“Noemí? What is it?”

“I don’t feel safe.”

“I reali—”

“It’s a trick. I don’t understand your mind games, but I know I’m not entirely
me
when Virgil is around,” she said, her hands fluttering up as she brushed the hair away from her face nervously. “Not lately. Magnetic. That’s how Catalina described him. Well, no wonder. But it’s not charm alone, is it? You said the house can induce you to do certain things…”

She trailed off. Virgil brought out the worst in Noemí, she disliked him immensely, and yet as of late he also awoke a depraved thrill in her. Freud talked of death drives: that impulse that makes someone, standing at the edge of a cliff, suddenly want to jump off it. It was surely this ancient principle at work, Virgil tugging at a subconscious string she’d been ignorant of. Playing with her.

She wondered if it was like this for the cicadas Francis had mentioned. Singing their mating songs even as they were consumed alive from within, their organs turning to powder while they rocked against each other. Perhaps chirping even more loudly, the shadow of death creating a frenzy of need inside their small bodies, urging them on toward their own destruction.

What Virgil inspired was violence and carnality, but also a heady delight. The joy of cruelty and a velvet black decadence she had tasted only slightly before. This was her greedy, most impulsive self.

“Nothing will happen to you,” Francis assured her, setting down his oil lamp on a table shrouded in white.

“You don’t know that.”

“Not when I’m around.”

“You can’t be around all the time. You weren’t there when he grabbed me in the bathroom,” she said.

Francis clenched his jaw, almost imperceptibly, shame and anger washing over his features, his face flushing richly. His gallantry was misplaced. He wanted to be her knight and could not. Noemí crossed her arms, tucking her chin down.

“There must be a weapon, please, Francis,” she insisted.

“My straight razor, perhaps. I could give you that. If it would make you feel safer.”

“It would.”

“Then you can have it,” he said; he sounded genuine.

She realized this was but a small gesture, which did not solve her problems. Ruth had carried a rifle, and that did not save her. If this was truly a death drive, a defect of her psyche now amplified or twisted by the house, then no ordinary weapon could protect her. Yet she appreciated his willingness to help her.

“Thank you.”

“It’s nothing. I hope you don’t mind bearded men, since I won’t be able to shave if you’ve got my razor,” he said, trying to make a quip, trying to lighten the mood.

“A bit of stubble now and then never hurt anyone,” she replied, matching his tone.

He smiled, and the smile, like his voice, was genuine. Everything in High Place was gnarled and begrimed, but he’d been able to grow bright and mindful, like an odd plant that is carried onto the wrong flower bed.

“You truly are my friend, aren’t you?” she said. She hadn’t quite believed it, half expecting a ruse, but she didn’t think there was one.

“You should know the answer by now,” he replied, but not unkindly.

“It’s very difficult, in this place, to discern what’s real from what’s false.”

“I know.”

They looked at each other, quiet. Noemí began walking around the room, running her hand atop the shrouded furniture, feeling the decorations carved into the wood beneath, upsetting the dust that had collected upon the drop-sheets. She raised her head and saw him staring at her, his hands in his pockets. Noemí tugged at one of the white sheets, revealing a sofa upholstered in blue, and sat on it, her feet tucked up under her.

He sat next to her. The mirror that dominated the room was now right in front of them, but it was cloudy with age and distorted their reflections, turning them into phantoms.

BOOK: Mexican Gothic
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