The Elderflowers of Capra

I am a woman without any real name. I am a stranger here though this is the only home I can call my own. I am shut out of the world around me, barred, forever foreign. I am not travelling through, though I can never step in. Perhaps it was always so, though it didn’t feel that way when I arrived. I was so fresh and green, so full of hope for the future. I was just a girl then. And in the few months since, I have aged more than I would wish upon anyone.

My first days in this place were joyous. My gallant husband and I had been on an extended vacation crossing Europe after we had met and married in my hometown. He had been visiting a short time on business and we had agreed to travel eastwards and settle in his country after our tour. I had heard wonderful things about his home – it was a grand manor at the top of a hill with sprawling gardens that took the whole afternoon to fully explore; there was a room for every mood, including a sun-house in which to bask in the dawn and dream at dusk; it was to be our haven. The sweetest gesture my dearest staged before our arrival was to have three elderflower trees planted in an orchard at one end of the garden. My parents had an elderflower tree in their front lawn, apparently to ward away the devil! Nevertheless I loved the scent of the cream flowers every summer and my husband wanted to give me a little piece of my old home. The first day I walked in the orchard and saw the dark berries I had grown up with, I cried. I was truly happy then. Now just the thought of those trees tastes like ash in my mouth.

Those first weeks were intoxicatingly brilliant for us, though when I look back I can see this was not from our surroundings. The last glimpses of autumn quickly turned to winter bringing a cold greyness with it. The sun only appears here for a few short hours and is often masked by clouds in a silver sky. The house is grand indeed, but we burn lights in the rooms even throughout the day. We have always eaten well though the local foods are heavy, earthy and meals are repetitive. And we are so far away from everything. Our nearest neighbours are at least half a mile away down in the valleys, along small paths that are uneven and evidently rarely used. The people we met on our way up to the house were not particularly forthcoming, eyeing my russet hair and translucent skin with distrust amidst the sea of dark heads and black eyes. Standing in the solid presence of my towering, raven-haired, groomed-mustachioed husband, they must have thought I was a waifish wraith. There are a small number of servants in the house, but language prevents any real communication, I don’t understand them and they look at me with a sombre curiosity. They referred to him as ‘Domn’ and to me his ‘Doamna’. I picked up a few other small words from my husband, though I wish there had been time to ask him for more. Ultimately we were alone in the big old house. But to all this, at that time, I didn’t pay much notice. I was busy creating a nest for the two of us and our eventual family. This was our new start. A wonderful beginning.

Our days were languid and filled with love. We slept until late, wandered the gardens, read poems from our travels and ate late into the night – chattering like children and falling over sleepy drunk on rich wine and the exquisiteness of ourselves. It was not long before we knew for certain we were to have a child. My body had started to soften, though I believe the nausea and uncharacteristic aversion to sweetened foods were the more obvious clues. My darling was delighted by the news and a new tenderness crept into his being. He had always been charming, which undoubtedly made it easier to so eagerly leap into his world, one that was so different from my own. But from then on, he looked at me differently and to this day I’m not sure exactly what he was seeing. He began planning for our new arrival with fervour. He would spend days visiting merchants in the valleys to ensure we had all the necessary comforts for a new babe; often he would be away several nights if the snows dictated. I spent the time alone, blissfully snoozing by the fireplace for warmth or drifting through the house looking at the hanging family portraits for company.

During that time I came to be quite familiar with his extended relations; there was the obvious dark colouring that ran through them all, but also a stern heaviness that occupied every painting. Perhaps it was the artist’s style or perhaps it was my imagination, I cannot be sure. It struck me that none of his relatives had been to visit us. In my months at the house I had not been acquainted with a single one, whereas he had been introduced to all of my family and friends at our wedding. I had been told his mother had passed away giving birth to his twin – a brother who did not survive the few days that followed. His father brought him up amidst a succession of nurses and governesses, though he had fallen in combat when my husband was just a youth. The sadness of this account prevented me from enquiring about his wider family whenever I saw him, but when I was alone, standing so close to these larger than life relations living on our walls, I wondered who they were and why we had no contact with them.

As my belly grew each day and I started to feel the fluttering within me, I began searching for old mementoes, treasures from his childhood, letters from relations, anything that might enlighten me on the father of my unborn child. But I found very little. Dusty old books, imperious paintings, trinkets from his travels, an immense wardrobe and a well-stocked wine cellar – but that seemed to be all. There was nothing that shone any true light on who he really was other than the kind, handsome man I was becoming aware I didn’t know well at all. That was until I found the box.

There was a small study leading from the library; it was a room I had not ventured into before as it had never seemed of any interest. The study was cramped with no windows and featured a large oak writing desk upon which stood a brass lamp with a crimson glass shade. Behind the desk there was a large gilt-framed map of the world. Along one wall stood a low cabinet with ornate engravings. The cabinet seemed to be from some exotic land and he had placed three bottle-green, gold-rimmed picture frames on top of it, each containing a magnificent palm-sized butterfly. The butterflies were beautifully coloured and each had a small brass plaque below: Papilio Polyxenes was glossy black with two rows of small cream dots at the edges and pale blue shading on the bottom wings; Phoebis Sennae was such a delicate golden yellow allover it looked like the petals of a flower; the third butterfly Danaus Chrysippus was deep orange with black edges and small white spots that looked like a lace trim. They were enchanting together and I was amused at the discovery, having had no idea my steely paramour had a fondness for such fragile things.

I opened the cabinet doors hoping to find more secrets my lover had yet to share with me. I found some leather bound manuscripts with details of the butterflies and what appeared to be medical journals, all in the language of the land that I had no way of understanding. It was a disheartening find though I wondered whether I should discuss the butterflies with my husband or allow it to remain his private study alone. I was sure he would share his hidden passion with me in time.

As I was putting the journals back I found some would not go in as far as the others and thought one must have fallen at the back of the cabinet. I knelt down to reach in and pulled out a black lacquered box with an intricate mother of pearl floral design on its lid. In the centre was the inscription Fluteri. Intrigued, I carefully opened the casket and found, curled up like small creatures slumbering on the burgundy velvet lining, two long locks of hair, each wrapped around a gold ring. I considered what it was I had unearthed; my heart stopped for a millisecond before I dropped the box in disgust. The locks of hair fell to the floor – one was glossy black, the other golden yellow. I looked at the rings and lifted my left hand – all three were identical gold wedding bands with embossed vines. I swallowed a vile taste in my mouth as all manner of wild fancies raced through my mind. I held my breath and urged myself to pick up one of the rings and check the engraving on the inside. I already knew what I would see in an elegant script – Capra – my husband’s name, the one I had taken. I forced myself to check the other ring and indeed, just like on my own, the name was there. My husband had never given any indication he had married before, and I didn’t understand what may have happened to these wives. Why had he failed to mention their existence? Why was there no trace of them left in the house except here in this tiny tomb? I looked again at the vile pieces of hair on the floor, both lying dead to the world, they were almost exactly the same shades as the first two butterfly wings I had just admired. I looked back at the trio of butterflies, the third one sitting so prettily – stunned and stabbed with a pin through its gut – was the russet Danaus Chrysippus. I felt sickened and instinctively placed a protective hand on my rounded stomach. My wedding ring felt heavy on my hand and I started to panic. I thought I had been in the study too long and might be found out. I knew my husband was not at home but I had no idea when he would return. And perhaps the servants would inform him where I was… I didn’t know what this might lead to. I hastily put the monstrous locks of hair back in the rings and then back in the casket, pushing it as far back in the cabinet as possible, stacking the leather books and journals in front once again. I closed the cabinet and hurriedly left the study.

The air in the house was musty and dry. Every room I went into I felt the eyes of the family ancestors staring at me, as though they were questioning my actions and my right to be intruding upon every corner of the house so candidly. Perhaps it was my own folly to have been so curious, I should have let things be. And now I had discovered something I did not understand and the discovery terrified me. In my confused state I went out into the gardens for fresh air. I found myself charging for the orchard, seeking confidants in my beloved elder trees. The wind whipped my curls roughly against my face and I didn’t care that I was insufficiently dressed for the bitter snowfall in just a light dress. I ploughed my awkward body forwards to reach the safety of the elder boughs. I reasoned that if I could carry a piece of those trees with me always, I would be saved a horrible fate. The trees were bare and stood stark against the snow. I found myself pulling frigid strips of bark from the thin branches and hiding brittle twigs in my skirt. The desperate work ripped the skin from my frozen fingers and at some point I stopped to sit on the ground and sob. I don’t know how long I had been there when one of the man-servants came into the orchard shouting ‘Doamna’! I didn’t resist as he picked up my iced body and carried me into the house. One of the young maids sat me next to the fire and I cried out as I realized how cold I was. One of the older women servants began scolding the girl in their own tongue. She instructed the man-servant to carry me up the stairs to the bedroom, where she helped me take off my wet clothes. She piled them on the floor where they sat in a mound looking like a dwarfish ghoul. She tried to throw out the tree bark and twigs until I hysterically explained in any way I could that I needed to keep them. She finally relented and put them next to the brass candlestick on my bedside table. She wrapped me in blankets and forced me to drink a hot broth. I must have fallen asleep soon after, though I woke often that afternoon, sweating and feverish, having the most terrifying life-like hallucinations. I was vaguely aware that the old woman was there the whole time, trying to soothe me with words I could not comprehend.

I dozed off again and dreamt my husband was shaking me, calling me by my name. I looked at him and saw scarlet flashes of evil flickering in his black eyes. I tried to push him away, but he grabbed my thin wrists and was pulling me up from the bed. I managed to break one hand free, crying out, ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ I grasped the candlestick from the bedside table and hurled it against his face. He staggered back in shock, raising his hand to a wide gash under his eye. He lost his footing and fell backwards. There was silence followed by a peace as I lay back down in our bed and slept a deep sleep.

I woke up suddenly feeling damp and cold. My nightdress was wet and chilled my skin. I grappled for the matches to light the bedside candle but couldn’t find it. So I stumbled in the dark to light the candle by the window. As I turned back, the candle now dimly outlining the shadows in the room, I saw the body of my husband sprawled on the floor, mouth lazily hanging open, lifeless eyes gazing up at the ceiling. He was lying in a vast pool of red that snaked over the bedsheets and was spilling down through the floorboards. All I could think in that strange moment was that it was surprising one body contains so much blood.

My senses were dulled and I reasoned this was just another vision of my fever. I mechanically moved to the washstand to wash the stains from my hands and face. My white nightdress looked terrible covered in angry streaks. I took it off and replaced it with a clean one from my chest of drawers. I sat down at my dresser, looked at the murky room and at some point then, grasped that I was not dreaming. I realised I had done a terrible thing. No matter how hideous the thing my husband may or may not have done. I had not had time to ask him in order to learn the truth. I needed to properly see what had happened. The morning sun had not fully risen and the room was too gloomy. I struck a match to light another candle. My fingers were still damp and clumsy, causing the matches to fizzle out. But I kept lighting them, going around the room, until all the candles glowed fiercely. And I saw clearly what was in the room. And smelt the animal stench. I was horrified. And so I kept lightly more matches. They fell to the floor. Some went out. Some crackled as they smouldered against the fine legs of the dresser, then the Oriental floor rug, the lace curtains, the brocade drapes. And still I frantically lit more matches as I paced the room heading for the door. I couldn’t see clearly through my tears and the rising fumes. Fire started licking the edges of the bedsheets before the entire bed canopy was engulfed in flames. The searing elder wood on the bedside table fell on top of the body lying on the floor. I reached for the door handle as a rushing gust of wind blew the blazes higher over the burning body. I heard a roar behind me as I turned – and then I saw him through the smoke: flashing vermillion eyes and an inhuman face that will be forever branded onto the inside of my eyelids; for a fleeting moment, staring at me with pure, unparalleled hatred, I saw the face of the devil.

I was still shrieking when I was downstairs in the drawing room. The man-servant had dragged me out of the bedroom and the dour ashen staff were looking at me as though I was mad. It didn’t seem to take long to put the fire out and moments later, or maybe hours, they brought down the body of their Domn. There was a silent numbness running through the household that day, though I did not have the opportunity to unscramble the events in my head, as that evening our son decided to tear his way into the world. He was earlier than anyone had expected but perhaps his timing was astute. If his father had anything to do with the exquisite pain I endured, perhaps it was the punishment I was due. Or perhaps my existence now is my great penance.

Since then the world has turned into a place I do not recognise. There was a swift funeral for the deceased, attended it would seem only by the household staff and one or two others from the valleys. The older woman servant made it clear it would not be possible for me to join the wake, and for that small mercy, I was silently thankful. She has been helping me with the child, often taking him so that I can rest a little in between the constant feeding and crying. They are odd, the feelings I have for him; I love the perfect small creature so dearly, and yet when he is awake I just long for him to sleep; and when he is so softly snoozing, I long for him to wake again. I haven’t slept a night since his arrival several weeks ago and hence walk about the place in a constant haze. I imagine this is just a normal part of the process, but I have no way to ask anyone. I don’t know what I can say to the old woman, even if I could speak more than a phrase or two of the language. I don’t have the words to say what I need to scream.

As I go about the house now, I can feel the servants look at me with grave pity – Capra’s widow. I wonder what they truly see. When I peer into the looking glass I do not know the woman who looks back. My body is so changed, my face looks puffed and eternally unrested. My mind still cannot fully accept the brutality of the physical assault I suffered the night my son was born, I had no idea what would be involved. I wished my mother or some friend had forewarned me, but none were here with me. There was no one, just the servants who could tell me nothing that I understood.

The black dresses I wear have been made especially for this new woman with this new body and new life. The swelling of my figure is gradually declining, but it is not revealing a shape I remember. My Danaus Chrysippus hair falls out in clumps every time I touch it and, as I feed my child I am reminded my weary, bruised body does not belong to me anyhow. I am, whoever I am, lost. And my son. My innocent newborn son. What will I say to him about all of this? When he learns to speak my language and asks about his father, what words and stories can I share? Everything that has happened here feels too abominable to ever mention again. And everything that happened before we arrived feels as though it happened to somebody else in some other life. It was not me, not this woman today. I have no point of reference to that bright girl of hope, she no longer exists – Capra was not the only one who died that day. All that remains are three elderflower trees, planted upon instruction by her late husband. It was a divine gesture indeed.

Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved

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